One of billionaire Bill Gates’s favorite expressions is that technology can solve life’s problems. For the U.S. energy industry, that mantra is certainly holding true.
A variety of new technologies and advanced drilling techniques has unearthed an ocean of oil and natural gas under American soil. And it’s raising new hopes that the nation’s mammoth demand for energy can be met domestically.
By using hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in fields both old and new, crude oil production in the U.S. has hit its highest level in more than 12 years. Overall, the Energy Department shows that stockpiles within the nation have risen to peaks not seen since 2008.
At the same time, horizontal drilling has continued to beef up natural gas stores as well. All of those underground salt caverns, depleted oil fields and aquifers that store natural gas are rapidly filling up. The latest Natural Gas Storage Report shows inventories gained 19 billion cubic feet in the week ended April 6, reaching almost 2.5 trillion cubic feet. Storage is now 60.5% above five-year averages. The resulting glut of gas has sent prices spiraling downwards toward decade lows.
Add this to various efficiency measures and the expansion of renewable energy resources, and it looks like the U.S. may be well on its way to becoming self-sufficient in powering itself. Indeed, given the nation’s new-found oil and gas wealth, “energy independence” is quickly moving from a buzzword to a reality.
However, actually achieving that long-sought goal will entail a long journey — and it’s one that will lead to plenty of opportunities for investors. In this first in a series of what America’s move to energy independence will mean for investors, we’ll first look at one of the most important pieces of this puzzle: energy logistics.
Improving the Nation’s Energy “Plumbing”
A glut of oil means nothing if can’t be used. Drivers and refiners in the Northeast are finding that out the hard way. Despite the surge in oil inventories, gasoline prices continue to rise to near record highs. Ultimately, energy independence and pricing comes down to logistics.
North America’s energy landscape is currently a crisscrossed map of distribution bottlenecks, broken connections and pricing discrepancies. Eliminating those issues is key to even begin thinking about energy independence. Modernizing our pipeline “midstream” infrastructure and expanding its ability to deliver energy to end users around the country is the single most vital ingredient needed to reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil. No shortage of examples show why.
A major problem exists at the Cushing, Okla., storage depot. Billed as the “Pipeline Crossroads of the World,” Cushing holds about 10% of the total U.S. crude inventory and is the major hub connecting the Gulf Coast suppliers with consumers in the North.
The recent surge in shale oil production from regions such as North Dakota’s Bakken has created a historic glut of oil at the depot. Unable to be moved to where it can be used, the energy is essentially just sitting there. While both Enbridge (NYSE:ENB) and TransCanada (NYSE: TRP) have plans to alleviate the bottleneck, they’re just baby steps. Only one pipeline currently moves oil from the Midwest to refiners in the Northeast. However, the 5,500-mile Colonial pipeline is quite inefficient, old and in need of major upgrades.
Likewise, the bulk of America’s new sources of plentiful supply are coming from areas that have not historically been known for energy production. Area’s such Michigan’s Antrim shale and Ohio’s Utica, are becoming hotbeds of production. To take advantage of and gather these unconventional resources, new pipelines and infrastructure must be built. Additionally, as more utilities switch to natural gas to generate power, more pipelines will be needed.
A Huge Undertaking
For investors, the opportunity lies within building out this expanding network of pipes, gathering systems and storage tanks. Huge amounts of money will be spent on energy logistics to make the dream of energy independence a reality. According to a study by consultancy group ICF International, around 1,400 miles worth of new pipelines will be needed each year. It estimates that the U.S. and Canada will require a midstream natural gas investment between $6 billion and $10 billion annually from 2011 to 2035. This is more than double the average spent on pipeline infrastructure from 1999 to 2008.
Analysts at Deutsche Bank (NYSE:DB) predict that spending will need to average closer to $15 billion a year. That equates to roughly $210 billion for new energy infrastructure.
That huge dollar amount provides investors with plenty of prospects for playing the buildout. Perhaps one of the best ways is via the firms that will do the heavy lifting.
Chicago Bridge & Iron (NYSE:CBI), which is neither located in Chicago nor builds bridges, is a petrochemical construction powerhouse. The firm is involved in a variety petroleum-related projects, including the design and construction of some of the world’s largest onshore and offshore pipeline projects.
CB&I is also one the leading liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant builders. It was tapped by Chevron (NYSE:CVX) to help construct its massive Gorgon project in Australia. Three LNG export facilities have been approved in the U.S., and analysts say more will be coming. As a leader in the field, CB&I could see itself winning more contracts to construct these facilities. It could also win more pipeline contracts stemming from these facilities.
Shares of the Netherlands-based firm, with $9 billion worth of project backlogs, can be had for a forward price-earnings ratio of just 12. That backlog alone makes shares a buy. Add in the shares’ token dividend (0.40%) and recent blistering earnings growth, and CBI could be a great buy.
While CB&I is just one potential winner from the infrastructure buildout — smaller firms MasTec (NYSE:MTZ) and Willbros Group (NYSE:WG) could be others — the Dutch giant represents one of the best possible plays on America’s road to energy independence. Investors take note.
As of this writing, Aaron Levitt doesn’t hold any of the securities mentioned here.