Natural Gas Leaders Displace Oil Barons in New Developments

By Myerson, Allen R. | THE JOURNAL RECORD, February 15, 1995 | Go to article overview

Natural Gas Leaders Displace Oil Barons in New Developments


Myerson, Allen R., THE JOURNAL RECORD


HOUSTON _ In the energy world, the geeks are pushing out the sheiks. OPEC ministers, old-line oil executives and Texas wildcatters are no match for the balding economists, scientists and engineers, dripping with graduate degrees, who run the natural gas companies.

While Saudi Arabia wallows in debt, companies nobody has ever heard of are building multibillion-dollar pipelines across mountain ranges, deserts and seas, and multibillion-dollar liquefaction plants to ship gas where even the pipelines can't go.

As a result, owlish executives like Kenneth L. Lay, (Ph.D., economics), the chairman of Enron, are global diplomats. Pipelines across the Andes are tying together Latin American countries that had been chilly neighbors.

Japan is balancing its exports to Southeast Asia with imports of liquefied natural gas. By next summer, a pipeline under the Straits of Gibraltar will feed Spain and Portugal natural gas from Algeria by way of Morocco.

And where are many Middle Eastern nations turning for help in developing and marketing their own natural gas? To Israel. Jordan and Egypt have agreed to build natural gas pipelines to Israel, and Qatar is trying to negotiate a shipping deal.

As Amos Ron, director general of Israel's Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure, put it in an interview, "Such projects like natural gas pipelines are important stakes for the tent of peace, to hold it on the ground."

Lay's ambition is to match the global scope of the corporate oil titans, perhaps casting himself as the next Rockefeller. "Our vision is to provide the same kind of technical, marketing and financial skills to the natural gas business worldwide that the oil majors provided in the early part of this century," he said above the static from his jet's telephone.

For the natural gas geeks, the competition has a long head start.

Oil can be sent anywhere on anything. Natural gas fields must be tied to urban markets by costly pipelines and processing plants. Shipping natural gas requires liquefaction in plants as expensive as emirate palaces, although costs are falling.

Back in the 1970s, the United States lumped oil and natural gas together as petroleum products that electric utilities should shun. Having discovered since then that major natural gas producers like Kansas and Oklahoma don't even belong to OPEC, policy-makers changed their minds.

Natural gas, which burns far more cleanly than coal or oil, has become the Clinton administration's favorite fuel. …

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Natural Gas Leaders Displace Oil Barons in New Developments
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