Most of the new oil and natural-gas pipelines that get financed and built over the next few years will be short-haul projects that address regional constraints, not the much longer projects that helped drive the sector in the past, says Peter Abt, Black & Veatch managing director in charge of the firm's oil and gas strategy practice.
Abt, who oversaw B&V's "2013 Strategic Direction in the North American Natural Gas Industry" report, also believes that only a few of the more than 20 liquefied-natural-gas export terminal projects now being planned actually will be constructed.
The number of LNG export terminals that are financed and built will depend on developers' success in lining up long-term purchase agreements with credit-worthy buyers in Asia and elsewhere, Abt says, noting, "The first few projects [to secure DOE export approval] have that."
B&V's survey respondents say the federal government and market forces will cap export capacity at 6 billion cu ft per day, roughly equal to the capacity of the four projects with DOE approval in hand.
Abt further says the U.S. oil and gas pipeline construction sector, booming only a few years ago, has shifted from long-haul, inter-regional projects, such as the Rockies Express line, to much shorter projects aimed primarily at relieving intra-regional bottlenecks. "I don't know of any major long-distance pipelines being proposed," he says.
Even the shorter-haul pipeline projects lack market and regulatory support.
"Electric power generators' hesitancy to commit to firm capacity contracts makes it difficult for pipelines to attract the necessary capital needed to expand pipeline infrastructure to better serve this market," the report says.
The demand for pipeline capacity is clear. Utilities and independent power companies are increasing their reliance on gas-fired generation as more coal plants are retired. But "the details regarding how pipeline infrastructure is implemented and paid for—and who pays for it—represent the tension points for all stakeholders," says the report.
B&V says the growing issue of U.S. natural-gas pipeline constraints was highlighted last winter in New York and New England, where generators relying on the natural-gas spot market "saw prices spike to up to 10 times higher than the price of gas elsewhere."
While this extreme price volatility lasted for just a few days, B&V says, "it highlighted a key problem the industry is facing: insufficient pipeline capacity to deliver growing peak-demand gas to electric generators, as well as residential and commercial consumers."
According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, new natural-gas pipeline construction was at its lowest level in 2012 on a mileage basis since 1997, with only 367 miles of pipeline additions.