Uniting an Industry: Ahead of the North American Gas Forum

on August 22, 2013 at 2:00 PM

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A year ago, it was common for energy executives, regulators and critics to marvel at the sense of whiplash they felt from the extraordinary revival of North American natural gas production. Technology shifts long in the making but broadly below the radar of markets underpinned an expansion of the fuel’s market share amid low pricing analysts almost universally failed to predict.

For a short while in the wake of high oil prices followed by a highly complex boom in renewable energy development from a low base, natural gas was the “wonder fuel.” As it slipped seemingly without challenge to a new leading place in the US energy future, predictions abounded for falling greenhouse gas emissions as coal was displaced, of natural gas car fleets freeing the US from dependence on Opec imports, and of a manufacturing renaissance seemingly already in the making.

The debate over the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing in developed areas of the continent long ignored by natural resource developers was an early indication that the dream of natural gas as the perfect fuel couldn’t last forever, and that it would eventually come under the same kind of scrutiny that development of other resources already labor under. Companies only a few years ago marked out as the biggest natural gas boosters have backed away from their most enthusiastic production forecasts, with prices, infrastructure constraints and – that permanent shadow of energy investment – regulatory uncertainty, all dimming the probably always overenthusiastic promises of a natural gas-led economy for North America.

Counterintuitively, this new phase of understanding the complexity of challenges in natural gas development is actually a good thing for well-managed companies and energy executives with experience of the sector. As real projects – including the natural gas export facility licenses that the Department of Energy has finally cleared Cheniere Energy’s Sabine Pass and Freeport’s owners to proceed with – are built, operational excellence and competent execution become more important than the easily-debunked promises of a swift shift in the North American energy economy.

“Natural gas guys” – as they call them in the sector – are different. Long second string to their counterparts in oilfields, even when employees of the same firm – they are accustomed to the faster development cycles, the localized market conditions and the extreme competition that came from being a smaller business with less of a global footprint. They have traditionally been less tied to the national governments that use oil companies as funding mechanisms, and are traditionally more entrepreneurial and less stakeholder-oriented. It is instructive that iconic figures like T. Boone Pickens are now in the natural gas business years after their oil fields went corporate, and that the most controversial figures in the energy business today are natural gas guys.

As the business grows in terms of market share and importance, the leaders of the natural gas business will be under pressure to change, to – as one executive said at a recent industry event in New York – “join the Matrix.”

As befits their independent status, natural gas leaders have not generally had the same kind of conference and event footprint that oil commands. That, too, is changing. The North American Gas Forum, hosted by Energy Dialogues LLC and for which Breaking Energy is a media partner, is scheduled for September 30-October 1 in Washington, DC and will feature high profile speakers not just from gas firms, their service providers and natural gas buyers, but from industry giants like ExxonMobil and high-profile representatives from government, regulatory authorities and industry associations, all dealing with the impact of the shifts in the natural gas market.

Panels at the North American Gas Forum that feature “North American leaders [debating] opportunities and challenges of cooperation and integration” or “North America’s role and geopolitical shifts underpinning the energy world” underline both the changing reality of the natural gas business and the urgency on the part of executives like Chevron Vice President of Supply and Trading Greg Vesey to discuss ways the sector can actively lead into the North American energy future.

The North American Gas Forum is “a unique platform in that it is more of a dialogue than other events and attracts key decision makers that provide great opportunities for networking and to hear the latest views on policies and industry developments,” UOP Honeywell Strategic Marketing Director Gas Processing and Hydrogen Guy Lewis told Energy Dialogues LLC recently. Lewis is set to speak at the conference.

“There are so many different things going on in our industry, it is important to be aware of them and get to know who the people are that are working on them,” GDF Suez Senior Vice President of Commercial Operations Guy Braden told Energy Dialogues LLC. “Natural gas will be a significant form of energy for as far out in the future as our planning considers. If it is a bridge fuel, the bridge is likely quite long.”

To find out more about the North American Gas Forum visit its website here, and to participate in discussions ahead of the event join the Energy Dialogues LinkedIn group here.