Shale Gas Gives Big Boost to America’s Economy
"Natural gas has wrought some remarkable changes. Over the past five years America has recorded a decline in greenhouse-gas emissions of 450m tonnes, the biggest anywhere in the world. Ironically, given its far greater effort to tackle climate change, the European Union has seen its emissions rise, partly because its higher gas prices (linked to oil) have led to an increase in coal-fired power generation.
Cheap gas is also helping other parts of America’s economy. The country’s industry uses around a third of its gas output. The biggest winner might be the petrochemicals industry. It gobbles up gas as feedstock to make chemicals such as methanol and ammonia, a vital ingredient of fertilizer. Switching feedstock from naphtha, derived from oil, to ethane, derived from gas, has kept petrochemicals cheap even as oil prices have peaked. These chemicals in turn provide cheaper raw materials for carmakers, agriculture, household goods and builders, or go for export at prices to compete with the world’s lowest-cost producers, the state-owned petrochemicals firms in the Middle East.
Dow Chemical and others have announced a raft of new investments in America to take advantage of low gas prices. Methanex, the world’s biggest methanol producer, is considering dismantling a huge ethylene cracker in Chile and rebuilding it on America’s Gulf coast. The United States might export fewer cheap raw materials to countries with low labour costs to be made into goods to export back to America. The country could do the job itself, shortening the supply chain and returning manufacturing jobs to America in industries where petrochemicals are a large part of the cost base. PricewaterhouseCoopers, a large accountancy firm, reckons that lower feedstock and energy costs could result in 1m more American factory jobs by 2025.
There are non-industrial benefits too. According to MIT, residential and commercial buildings account for over 40% of America’s total energy consumption, in the form of electricity or gas, making up over half the country’s demand for gas. Low gas prices have meant that the cost of heating schools and other government buildings, often itemised on local tax bills, is falling.
The fossil-fuel industry is only a small slice of America’s economy, but the relative drop in gas prices is so dramatic that it could boost a manufacturing renaissance. That might add 0.5% a year to GDP over the next five years, says UBS, a Swiss bank. Meanwhile low gas prices are already fattening American wallets. According to IHS Global Insight, a research outfit, they are saving the average American household $926 a year.
Not everyone will win. Some coalminers, for instance, will have to find new work. But Mr Obama says that fracking might support 600,000 jobs by the end of this decade. Not bad for a business that barely existed ten years ago."