Harold Hamm, one of the pioneers of the U.S. shale oil boom, is stepping up his investment in gas in an attempt to benefit from an expected surge in U.S. exports of LNG.
Hamm, a close ally of and adviser to President Donald Trump, is also positioning himself as an advocate of efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, highlighting the advantages of substituting gas for coal in power generation in reducing the threat of global warming.
Continental Resources Inc. (NYSE: CLR), the U.S. exploration and production company where Hamm is CEO and 76% shareholder, last month added an extra rig to drill for gas in the Cana-Woodford shale formation in Oklahoma, taking its total to six. It is operating a joint venture with SK Group of South Korea in the region, and said in June it was looking at expanding the alliance into further projects for developing shale gas production and exporting LNG from the U.S.
Although Hamm hit big as an oil producer, particularly in the Bakken formation of North Dakota, the share of gas in Continental’s output has been rising, from 37% in first-quarter 2016 to 44% in the equivalent period of this year. Continental is running nine rigs drilling wells primarily for gas production, and has about 10 primarily for oil.
“We’re an opportunistic entity: we’re not devoted only to oil,” Hamm told the Financial Times. “A lot of our exploration effort is going towards natural gas.”
He added that the Cana-Woodford formation was ideally placed to supply LNG export plants on the Gulf of Mexico coast of Texas and Louisiana.
Gas is typically less lucrative than crude. In the first quarter of this year, Continental sold its oil for an average price of $44.69 a barrel, but its gas at an average of just $18 for the equivalent energy content.
However, Hamm sees attractive long-term growth prospects in global gas demand, expecting U.S. LNG exports to rise from about 3.5 billion cubic feet a day (Bcf/d) in 2017 to between 10 Bcf/d and 11 Bcf/d by 2019, just from the export plants now under construction. As further liquefaction projects are approved and completed, he expects this to rise to 30 Bcf/d to 35 Bcf/d in the longer term.
At that rate, the U.S. would be exporting about 42% of this year’s total gas production.
Hamm welcomed the Trump administration’s support for the speedy permitting of new LNG facilities, but acknowledged that it would not make a great difference to the pace of export growth. The critical issue holding back further investment in U.S. LNG export plants, analysts say, is not the pace of regulatory approvals, but the strength of demand.
The global market for LNG is expected to grow at an annual average rate of 4% to 5% between 2015 and 2030, Royal Dutch Shell has forecast, but the market is at present oversupplied, with large export plants coming into production in the U.S. and Australia.
“I don't think we’re at the point where anyone is ready to move on investments in new U.S. LNG projects,” said Nikos Tsafos, an analyst at Enalytica. “There may be a project here or there that gets approved, but it depends on the level of demand, and I don’t think we are there yet.”
There are four U.S. LNG export projects that have been given the go-ahead but have not yet started construction because they do not have the customer contracts they need: Lake Charles LNG, Magnolia LNG, and an expansion at Cameron LNG, all in Louisiana; and Golden Pass LNG in Texas.
Continental, which on Aug. 8 reports earnings for the second quarter, made a net loss of $400 million on revenues of $1.98 billion in 2016.