By Clifford Krauss
CAMERON PARISH, La. — The Sabine River channel, where alligators and speckled trout live alongside petrochemical plants and oil refineries, has suddenly become the center of a quiet revolution in the world of natural gas.
And it is mainly at the prodding of a little-known company called Cheniere Energy with help from Exxon Mobil and Sempra Energy. Together they have overcome formidable regulatory hurdles to build three new liquefied natural gas terminals on the channel that will double the nation’s capacity to import natural gas by 2011.
It has been 24 years since anyone on American shores has built a new liquefied natural gas terminal. Two of the country’s four existing onshore terminals, which dock tankers the size of aircraft carriers ferrying supercooled gas from places like Qatar and Trinidad, were mothballed for years because production at home was plentiful and prices were low.
As recently as five years ago almost nobody in the energy world thought it possible to make money from a new American terminal project — with price tags that start at $600 million — let alone get a federal permit.
One lonely believer was Charif Souki, a Lebanese immigrant entrepreneur who had previously raised money for real estate in Paris and hotels in Hawaii before becoming chairman of Cheniere, a floundering gas exploration company. Not even the 9/11 attacks, which made many people on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts view liquefied natural gas terminals as potential terrorist targets, diverted him from his vision.
Now, even as natural gas prices sag, along with his company’s stock price, and the word glut is on the tip of the tongue among the drilling crowd, Mr. Souki says he is fixed on the longer view.
He is convinced the nation will need to import more gas because North American production is declining. That is the same view Mr. Souki held six years ago, when he decided to shake up the company’s business plan. He defiantly changed its stock symbol to LNG in 2003, and devoted himself to scoping out the country’s coastlines for potential terminal sites.
The already energy-intensive shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico, he concluded, made the most sense, economically and politically, and he started buying real estate in uninhabited harbors close to existing pipelines and gas-thirsty refineries and petrochemical plants.
“People were actually amused that we would be thinking about importing natural gas,” dryly giggled Mr. Souki, 53, a man with a taste for double-breasted suits. “Nobody took us very seriously.”
Cheniere was so unprofitable and utterly spurned by investors in 2002 that Mr. Souki had to borrow $30,000 from his company’s president just to meet a payroll. But over the last four years, Mr. Souki has managed to arrange financing, sign up long-term buyers and master the regulatory process.
Two of the four terminals he has permits for are under construction: one in Freeport, Tex., which Cheniere partly owns, and a second here in Sabine Pass, which it owns outright.
When completed, 6 huge storage tanks, 24 vaporizer modules and docking operations big enough to handle 400 cargo ships a year will help the Sabine Pass terminal process more gas than any existing terminal in the United States.
That could amount to four billion cubic feet of gas a day — or more than 5 percent of what Americans now consume. The company has not made any money yet, but its stock price soared from less than $1 a share when Mr. Souki started his liquefied natural gas strategy at the beginning of the decade to more than $40 this spring, including a split. The stock has been dropping lately, though, and hit a 52-week low yesterday. It closed at $25.59, a decline of $2.30, or 8.25 percent.
Cheniere hopes to build two more terminals along the gulf to gain more fees from big companies but also to sell spot cargo and short-term contracts for higher profit. Those terminals may be in doubt or at least delayed because suddenly and quite unexpectedly there may be too many terminals coming online to meet demand for imported gas in the next few years.
Ever since natural gas prices spiked from 2001 to 2005, Cheniere has been joined by many others in the buildup. Even as prices of natural gas futures have fallen this summer to four-year lows, companies are spending up to $9 billion on building new terminals or upgrading old ones, with the nexus of activity decidedly along Texas and Louisiana shores.
More than a dozen new liquefied natural gas terminal projects have been approved by the federal government in the last four years, all but one in the gulf region. Within a few years, there could be six terminals within 30 miles of the Sabine River alone.
“The gulf is where the United States consumes 25 percent of its natural gas,” Mr. Souki said in an interview in his undecorated Houston office where charts of monthly world natural gas trends are taped on the wall. “The gulf is also the only coastal area that is connected by pipeline to the Midwest.”
Liquefied natural gas represents only a 3 percent share of total American natural gas consumption, which is mostly used for industrial purposes and home heating. Cambridge Energy Research Associates estimates that imported liquefied natural gas will account for 10 percent of American use by 2010, and potentially as much as 25 percent by 2020.
The steps to import liquefied natural gas into the United States are taking off at a time when some big multinational oil companies have shrinking reserves of oil but rising reserves of gas around the world. Such companies often want the gas to fuel their own petrochemical plants and refineries — many in the gulf region.
“L.N.G. is going to have a growing importance,” predicted Donald E. Felsinger, chairman of Sempra Energy, another early embracer of liquefied natural gas. “The gas that we find here in North America is getting more and more expensive to produce. And because there is so much stranded gas around the world, L.N.G. can be shipped here and compete very effectively with traditional supplies.”
Sempra has millions of electricity customers in California. But because of local resistance, Mr. Felsinger said, “we thought we could never in a reasonable time frame get a facility sited along California’s coast.” So Sempra has looked to Louisiana and Texas for sites for new terminals, areas where an extensive natural gas infrastructure already exists to process and ship gas from wells offshore. It is also building a terminal in Baja California, Mexico.
But while most experts agree that importing natural gas satisfies a growing demand for cleaner energy sources, some are skeptical about how wise it is to put one more major component of the country’s energy grid around the stormy waters of the gulf.
“The concern is for the potential for supply interruptions,” said Robert Ineson, director for North American natural gas at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, noting that a major storm like Hurricane Katrina or Rita could move a seabed or sink a ship that would block the way into a liquefied natural gas terminal.
The terminals themselves are highly durable and most pipelines onshore are underground, he said, but the control operations above ground are vulnerable when storms hit. Moreover, skilled workers would have to navigate washed-out roads and other obstacles to reach damaged areas and make repairs.
Industry insiders largely dismiss the threat, noting that Hurricane Rita last year directly hit an existing liquefied natural gas terminal in Lake Charles, La., which was largely unscathed. They say the growing number of terminals in the coming years will increase storage supplies to help minimize disruptions.
There are few alternatives to building in the gulf. Several sites on the East and West Coasts are on energy company wish lists. But a variety of groups and coalitions opposed to liquefied natural gas have formed to stop them.
Opponents argue that liquefied natural gas terminals are prone to accident or terrorist attack, they produce air pollution, they damage ocean ecosystems and they harm indigenous peoples in countries that pump the gas in the first place.
Defenders dismiss the arguments as narrow-minded. “Nimby people have made their choice,” said Byron S. Wright, vice president for corporate development at the El Paso Corporation, using the acronym for “Not in my backyard.” “But the people on the Gulf Coast view energy infrastructure differently.”
Indeed, for Carrol Trahan, 61, the owner of the Bayou Convenience Store in nearby Johnson Bayou, the fact that six liquefied natural gas docking terminals are being constructed or are on the drawing boards near his home is no big deal.
“People around here are used to the energy business and we need the jobs, the tax base,” he said at his roadside store that stocks Cajun pickled quail eggs, Confederate flag necklaces and refrigerator magnets displaying “the Louisiana state bird” — the mosquito.
“When you can be wiped out at any time by a storm,” he sighed, “you can only live worrying so much.”
There is hardly a dissenting word in this coastal region of trailer parks, mangled sheds from last year’s hurricanes and lonely roads built on top of canals that separate one swamp from another and gas rigs from streams full of crabs.
When the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission held a public hearing in September 2004, a hundred people showed up. They voted unanimously in favor of the Sabine Pass, La., terminal.
Only one man, a charter fishing captain named Jerry Norris, stood up to express a few words of skepticism and worry that dredging for the Cheniere project would disturb the local fishery. Concerned about any opposition, Cheniere employees went on his charter boat with him to address his concerns. Now he is a fan.
“People around here are grounded in the refinery business,” Mr. Norris said. “We’re not going to stop what we’re doing because of terrorists around here. That’s just not going to happen.”
Liquefied natural gas executives say their terminals are as safe or safer than other energy plants. They explain that natural gas in liquid form is not particularly explosive or flammable.
But even in the gulf region, liquefied natural gas is not a business free of risk. The biggest fear is the chance that natural gas prices could collapse from excess supplies.
Within the industry, some also worry that too many liquefied natural gas terminals will be built, cutting into operating profits.
“There’s not going to be enough gas imported into this country to fill them all up,” Mr. Wright, the El Paso vice president, warned.
Mr. Souki, though, has exactly the opposite concern. “At the moment we are setting ourselves up for a very nasty surprise,” he said. “I don’t know if it will happen in a year or two or five, but one winter we are not going to have enough gas.”