— The Financial Times reports that the shale gas gold rush underway in the U.S. could have significant indirect economic impacts, helping boost manufacturing in chemicals and other industries that rely on petrochemicals for production processes.

By creating fast-growing markets for production equipment and services, and providing cheap energy and raw materials, the shale producers are holding out the promise of an American industrial renaissance. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity,” says Andrew Liveris, the chief executive of Dow Chemical, who is a vocal supporter of US manufacturing. “This is a gift that American entrepreneurs, the wildcatters, the oil and gas drillers, have given the country: 100 years of natural gas supply. There’s no country on the planet that wouldn’t love to get that, and then use it.”


Shale gas is particularly important because it is stranded in US, with no facilities to sell it on world markets, although the country’s first liquefaction plant to enable the gas to be exported is now under development. As a result, gas is much cheaper in North America than in other leading economies. The US price of about $3.60 per million British thermal units compares with about $8 in the UK and $16 in Japan…
“Natural gas is to the chemicals industry as flour is to a bakery,” says Cal Dooley, president of the American Chemistry Council, an industry group. “Cheap gas means both international and American companies are now looking at the US as the preferred location for new investment”…
For the first decade of the millennium, high and volatile gas prices made US production uncompetitive relative to producers in emerging economies. Jeffrey Lipton, a former chief executive of Canada’s Nova Chemicals who now spreads the shale gas gospel, says the balance of power has shifted back to North America. Unlike in some industrial sectors, China has no competitive advantage in chemicals, because it is an importer of gas and oil.

As the effect of cheaper American raw materials works through the value chain, Mr Dooley says, other manufacturers will also be encouraged back to the US to take advantage. “Even in the auto industry we are starting to see a response,” he says. “There are composite and plastic components presently being made outside the US, because it has been cheaper. That competitive advantage no longer exists. In the future the US will be in a far stronger position to be a supplier to the auto industry.” The ACC estimated in March that a 25 per cent increase in ethane production could create 400,000 jobs.

In other words, the FT says that our cheaper gas is causing manufacturers to consider relocating to the U.S. This is a bit pie in the sky, so it’s worth being skeptical here. I’d like to see more reporting on it to make sure it’s not energy-industry spin. But it’s not implausible.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.