U.S. natural gas production will have to accelerate significantly if the country is to keep growing record export volumes without creating shortages for consumers at home.
Gas exports in the form of LNG were up by 674 billion cubic feet or 87% in the first three months of 2022 compared with the same period in 2019.
Domestic consumption was flat over the same period, selected to span the pandemic, according to the latest monthly data compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
But domestic production increased by only 433 billion cubic feet (5%), mostly as a result of low prices and consolidation within the industry.
In consequence, LNG exports have grown to around 12% of domestic gas production, up from 4% in 2019, and the proportion is set to increase further.
Net exports in all forms, by pipeline as well as LNG, hit a record 377 billion cubic feet in March 2022, up from just 121 billion in March 2019.
Rapid growth in LNG exports, in excess of domestic production, has put increasing downward pressure on gas inventories and upward pressure on prices.
At the end of March, working stocks in underground storage were 318 billion cubic feet below the pre-pandemic five-year average.
After adjusting for inflation, front-month futures prices climbed in May to their highest since November 2008, on the eve of the financial crisis and great recession.
Real prices are in the 83rd percentile for all months since 1990, up from the 8th percentile three years ago, signalling the need for more production and discouraging consumption.
Reflecting the anticipated shortage of gas, futures prices for the current year compared with one-year forward have moved into a record backwardation.
There are, however, signs that domestic producers are starting to respond to the strong price incentive to raise output.
The number of rigs drilling specifically for gas has increased by 50% over the last six months, albeit from a low base, which should ensure output grows faster over the next year than in the last one.
The increase in the number of rigs drilling for oil should also help by increasing the amount of associated gas production.
The U.S. gas industry has been very successful in marketing its production to consumers in Europe and Asia who are anxious to diversify their sourcing and lock in reliable supplies.
Now the industry must show it can produce enough gas to feed the export machine.
John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.