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Flood Of Shale Gas Spilling Into Communities Across America

  • "We believe the shale gas revolution is a game-changer for energy intensive industries and the entire manufacturing sector"
  • "Low natural gas prices are spurring new manufacturing investment and creating jobs."
  • "Shale gas and energy have changed the whole manufacturing dynamic"

Source: Forbes, Ken Silverstein Contributor

Not many years ago, the U.S. steel industry found itself losing ground.

U.S. Steel Corp., the country’s largest producer, still had billions of dollars in revenue, but had posted large losses for three consecutive years. Meanwhile, China was offering cheaper labor and an abundance of the raw materials used to make steel. As a result, the World Steel Association reported that Chinese production of steel increased 57 percent between 2007 and 2013, while American production during that time period declined by 11 percent.

But then came the domestic shale gas boom, which has put the American steel industry back in the business of making pipes for drilling rigs and new pipelines.

The steel industry’s resurrection has been punctuated by developments like U.S. steel titan Nucor Corp.’s $750 million investment in an iron-ore facility in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The company opened the facility in 2013 to strip oxygen from iron ore — an energy-intensive manufacturing process that in an earlier era had left the United States for global regions that could power the plants more cheaply. When fully operational, the plant will be one of the most productive steel-making facilities in the world, generating around 2.5 million tons per year.

“We believe the shale gas revolution is a game-changer for energy intensive industries and the entire manufacturing sector,” says Katherine Miller, a Nucor spokeswoman. “Low natural gas prices are spurring new manufacturing investment and creating jobs.”

Indeed, more than $120 billion in domestic manufacturing investment has been announced, says Miller. That is expected to create 1 million new jobs by 2035, according to PriceWaterHouseCoopers.

While the levels of reserves have been adjusted downward, generally speaking the United States is still awash in shale gas, with some geologist estimating that shale production will remain active for decades. And that’s good news for Nucor and other manufacturers, which will continue to see relatively inexpensive natural gas prices — all made possible because of hydraulic fracturing, a controversial drilling technique that allows access to gas deposits that not long ago were too hard to retrieve.

The good fortune is compounded because developers are able to make use of both “dry” natural gas and the “wet gas” that is separated from it. Those so-called natural gas liquids are comprised of such chemicals as butane, ethane, methane and propane — all of which can serve as the foundation for finished goods that are consumed domestically and exported around the globe.

“It does take my breath away,” said Andrew Liveris, chief executive officer of The Dow Chemical Company, in a speech. “Ninety-five percent of everything you touch needs these building blocks.”

The combination of abundant and inexpensive natural gas supplies is encouraging both domestic and foreign companies to set up shop in the United States. Freeport, Texas, for example, is now home to brand new ethylene and ammonia plants, which rely on a steady flow of natural gas, launched by two of the largest global chemical producers: America’s Dow Chemical Co. and Germany’s BASF.

But Freeport is just a snapshot of the manufacturing investment flowing into the Gulf Coast. Dow alone plans to spend $4 billion in the region, according to Liveris. Meanwhile, companies like South Africa’s Sasol Ltd. and Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Corp. are acquiring the necessary permits to expand their presence in Louisiana and Texas, respectively.

But the benefits tied to the shale gas boom aren’t isolated to the Gulf Coast.

In Pennsylvania, petrochemical facilities — the engines behind the multi-billion dollar plastics and synthetics industry — had been underutilized until shale gas was found in the Marcellus region. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, three-fourths of the country’s natural gas production is occurring there, which has transformed the area. Now, such facilities there are modernizing and expanding.

“Shale gas and energy have changed the whole manufacturing dynamic,” says Chad Moutray, chief economist at the National Association of Manufacturers. “Just a few years ago, no one would have predicted this renaissance.”

In fact, the newfound cost advantage will lead to increased U.S. industrial production, adds a report by the American Chemistry Council, which examined the years between 2012 and 2025. The increase is equivalent to $258 billion in new manufacturing output in 2020 and $328 billion in 2025.

As of June 2014, more than 180 chemical industry projects, including facilities that break down wet natural gas, represent hundreds of billions in U.S. investment over the last couple years, the council says. And it’s expected to keep growing.

The positive outlook for those liquids is driving much of the chemical industry’s investments and plant expansions. Inexpensive natural gas prices, meanwhile, are lowering the cost of overhead for manufacturing and chemical enterprises — a primary expense for those businesses. The one-two punch means that certain manufacturing enterprises that were once considered causalities of globalization are now finding their feet once again.

“For the last 20 years, people have been asking about a company’s China strategy,” says Kevin Swift, chief economist with the American Chemistry Council. “And now the questions are about a company’s American strategy.”