Surging natural gas prices: Threat to consumers this winter?

Associated Press
A flare burns natural gas at an oil well Aug. 26, 2021, in Watford City, N.D. Consumers of natural gas are facing the prospect of much higher heating bills this winter. That's after enjoying a prolonged period of low prices.

NEW YORK (AP) – Brace for a rude surprise on yourwinter heating bills.

After years of unusually inexpensive levels, the price of natural gas in the United States has more than doubled since this time last year. In Europe and Asia, wholesale prices are more than five times what they were a year ago.

The surging costs have coincided with a robust recovery from the pandemic recession, with more homes and businesses burning all forms of fuel. That intensified demand is poised to contribute to higher heating costs in many areas of the world.

Having enjoyed a prolonged period of low prices, consumers of natural gas are facing the burden of far more expensive fuel — and the prospect of much higher heating bills this winter.

"Consumers got used to very low prices last year, because with the pandemic everything was shut down," said Mark Wolfe, executive director of the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. "Now, everything's coming back online, industry is returning and natural gas is being used again in very large quantities. And that's pushing up the price." 

In Europe and Asia, some companies that rely on natural gas have been forced out of business because of the higher prices. Four small British energy companies failed in recent weeks. Fertilizer producers, which use natural gas as a feedstock, are struggling. So are heavy industries that require significant heat, such as aluminum or cement producers.

Power companies in Europe and Asia are engaged in bidding wars over shiploads of liquid natural gas, thereby driving up the cost. Prices are also spiking in the U.S., which converts some of its natural gas into liquid and ships it to Europe and Asia. Those higher costs are showing up in gas bills for consumers around the globe. Analysts expect those prices to rise further through winter, when customers are most reliant on the fuel.

The main reason natural gas prices have jumped is that demand for fuel has accelerated as economies have recovered from the damage caused by the pandemic. But there's another key factor too: There's simply less gas on the market. 

The factors that have diminished the supply are varied. When the pandemic was raging, oil prices tumbled and producers ran low on money to drill. Once they curtailed drilling for oil, they also retrieved less gas, because most wells pump both oil and gas out of the ground at the same time.

What's more, Europe burned through significant natural gas last winter to heat homes during frigid weather, leaving storage tanks with little fuel. Then the summer was less windy than usual, so wind turbines didn't generate as much energy as expected. That, in turn, led nations to burn more natural gas, further depleting reserves.

At the same time, Russia reduced its natural gas supply to Europe, noted Carlos Torres Diaz, an analyst at Rystad Energy. All those factors combined to send natural gas prices in Europe skyrocketing to roughly $26 per million BTUs, compared with just $4 at the same time last year. 

A similar pattern occurred in China and Japan: Power plants burned more natural gas than usual to cool homes on a series of unusually hot days. Prices surged to $29 per million BTU in Asia, Rystad Energy calculated, from $5 a year ago.

Ira Joseph, an analyst at S&P Global Platts, noted that demand for liquid natural gas has been robust, even at much higher prices. In Japan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Taiwan and Indonesia, prices are so high that power companies will likely burn oil instead, according to Rystad. For the earth's environment, that could become an alarming trend.

Burning oil generates more climate-harming emissions than burning natural gas. 

The wholesale price of natural gas in the U.S. has exceeded $5, up sharply from $2 to $3 during most of the past two years. That's the highest price since 2014, though it's well below levels reached in the 2000s, when prices surpassed $10 per million BTU.

And drought-stricken places such as Brazil have been left with less hydropower and are burning more natural gas instead, adding to global demand and leaving even less gas on the market.

For customers in the U.S., Europe and Asia, winter heating bills could be sharply higher. In the U.S., according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, natural gas bills could be as much as 30% more for consumers this winter, with the average cost to heat a home rising to $750, from $572 over the same months last winter.

Oil prices, too, have surged — to nearly $80 a barrel in Europe and $75 in the U.S. Just as with natural gas, a key reason is that producers sharply curtailed drilling during the pandemic. Another reason is that some power providers switch to burning oil for power generation if the price of natural gas goes too high, thereby increasing demand for oil and driving prices still higher. The cost to warm homes with heating oil or propane could surge 40%, according to NAEDA.

All of that could cause hardships for customers who were already struggling. The energy assistance association helped a record 1.2 million households pay their cooling bills over the summer — a level of aid up 46% from last year and the most in the program's 40-year history. The increase was due in part to the higher temperatures that many experts have attributed to climate change.

The need for assistance through the winter will likely grow for low-income families, with federal unemployment aid having recently run out.

"The ending of unemployment, for those families, puts them at greater risk for all expenses, not just energy bills," Wolfe said.

Natural gas producers in the U.S. might benefit from higher prices for gas sold in the United States or overseas. Yet there's a limit to how much they can export to Europe and Asia. Facilities along the U.S. Gulf Coast that export liquid natural gas, or LNG, are all shipping at capacity. 

Some companies have wanted to expand those export facilities or build new ones. But because gas prices were so low over the past few years, these companies couldn't find enough buyers who wanted to sign long-term contracts. That could change, though, as buyers scramble for fuel.

"A lot of them might be rethinking their strategy and say, 'OK, maybe it's worth signing long-term contracts at a more certain price, rather than being a risk and try to get gas or LNG in this volatile market,' " Diaz said. 

Once those export facilities line up more long-term contracts, they could land the additional investment they need to complete the projects.