The Atlanta Fed’s Energy Advisory Council met at the New Orleans Branch on October 21 for its semiannual meeting to discuss current economic issues in the energy industry. Members were largely optimistic when sharing their views about demand, productivity, and pricing, which correlates to the ongoing “energy boom” we have discussed previously in SouthPoint. That said, some council members expressed concern about longer-term labor trends and noted ongoing uncertainty surrounding fiscal and regulatory policy issues.

We’ve heard for quite some time about the increase in oil and natural gas production, particularly related to shale resource production, processing, and transportation. With regard to the latter, council members discussed the importance of rail industry investment, which has been substantial recently. Increased use of rail transport has helped resolve transportation bottleneck issues that arose with rising production from shale resources. In fact, the American Association of Railroads reported that the U.S. rail industry has seen an unprecedented surge in crude shipments from less than 9,500 carloads in 2008 to more than 234,000 carloads in 2012. The numbers continue to increase in 2013. There were 97,135 carloads in the first quarter, up 166 percent from the first quarter of 2012.

With regard to pricing, council members generally agreed that natural gas prices will eventually rise. Factors behind the increase will likely be twofold: first (and probably most importantly in the near-term), once exports of liquefied natural gas begin, the supply glut in the United States is expected to alleviate, aligning U.S. pricing more closely with world prices. Second, the abundance of natural gas is prompting investment in technology dependent on it (for example, transportation, utilities, and manufacturing). As more projects that consume natural gas come online, higher demand is likely to push up market prices.

Some council members reported some concern about employment in the energy sector, because demand for skilled workers has outweighed the supply and led to labor shortages. One member pointed to an age gap in staff educated in engineering and possessing specialized skills. This appears to be tied to the decline in geology and energy-related education programs in colleges and universities following the oil price crash in the 1980s. Although these programs have regained popularity in recent years, and the supply of recent graduates with the desired degrees is growing, there is likely to be an experience gap that could be difficult to fill as current, more tenured workers retire.

Finally, though the Energy Advisory Council was generally upbeat about current industry conditions, members agreed that issues such as uncertainty surrounding fiscal policy, regulations, and ambiguity in the tax code are weighing on their confidence in the outlook. However, despite these concerns, members were unanimous in their belief that the policy and economic environment in the United States remained more attractive than most other energy-producing regions around the globe.

Photo of Rebekah DurhamRebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the Atlanta Fed’s New Orleans Branch