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February 16, 2021

Growing industrial consumption and exports support future U.S. natural gas market growth

annual U.S. natural gas consumption by sector and net exports
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook 2021, Reference case

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook 2021 (AEO2021) Reference case projects that growth in natural gas consumption in the United States between 2020 and 2050 will be driven by exports and industrial use; consumption growth from the other sectors will increase slowly or stay flat. In the Reference case projection, U.S. natural gas production will increase to 43.0 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) in 2050 as consumption increases to 35.7 Tcf. EIA expects natural gas prices will remain low compared with historical levels, and that low price drives the AEO2021 Reference case’s projection of increased production. EIA expects that exports will rise as production outpaces consumption throughout the projection period.

With economic growth driving U.S. industrial output, natural gas consumption by the industrial sector will increase by 3.6 Tcf, or 35%, from 2020 to 2050 and account for more than 75% of the 4.6 Tcf growth in U.S. natural gas consumption from all sectors during that period. Relatively low natural gas prices drive a growing U.S. chemicals industry, the largest domestic natural gas-consuming industry because it uses natural gas as a raw material (feedstock) as well as for heat and power. According to the AEO2021 Reference case, the bulk chemical industry will account for 45% of the industrial sector’s increased natural gas consumption, or 1.6 Tcf, through 2050.

Natural gas consumption in the U.S. power sector will reach 12.1 Tcf in 2050, up 0.4 Tcf (4%) from 2020. In 2020, natural gas consumption in the power sector increased by 4% from 2019 to 11.7 Tcf because of relatively low natural gas prices and COVID-19-related disruptions in the power sector’s coal supplies. Amid higher natural gas prices in 2021, EIA projects that consumption of natural gas by the power sector will decrease by 16% to 9.9 Tcf. Natural gas consumption will then increase slowly until 2027 because of projected growth in natural gas-fired generation and because of new, more energy-efficient combined-cycle turbine systems. These systems limit growth in power consumption because they use less fuel to produce each kilowatthour of electricity than older combined-cycle units or other fossil-fueled generators. Beyond 2036, EIA projects that consumption of natural gas in the U.S. power sector will continue to steadily increase.

The AEO2021 projects growth in natural gas consumption by other end-use sectors as well. Beyond 2040, natural gas consumption in the U.S. transportation sector increases as natural gas becomes a more predominant fuel for heavy-duty vehicles and freight rail. The residential sector’s natural gas consumption remains nearly flat, and commercial buildings show low-to-moderate growth because of energy efficiency improvements (particularly commercial energy management controls and sensors) in space heating.

Principal contributor: Mark Schipper