3 Ways You Can Play the North American Energy Boom

Robert is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.

Regular Motley Fool readers are probably aware that America is in the midst of an energy renaissance. For most of recent history, oil and gas was delivered from the coast and shipped inland. But this has been completely reversed in the past five years due to double digit production growth in the Bakken, Eagle Ford, and Alberta Oil Sands. This shift has created a bull market for mid-stream companies that refine or move energy products which will play out in three distinct stages. 

Short-Term: Refineries

Refineries have been the biggest benefactor of this energy boom. U.S. oil refiners are buying domestic crude cheap and exporting finished product internationally for a big premium. Over the past year, the spread between raw inputs, particularly West Texas Intermediate, and finished outputs has widened resulting in fat profits for refineries.

Valero (NYSE: VLO) is the best positioned to exploit this trend. Last quarter, the company announced that it had completely replaced its foreign crude with cheaper domestic supplies and has taken advantage of higher international prices by exporting 15% of capacity to premium markets like Western Europe and Latin America.

Valero is up 90% over the past year, but has lots of catalysts that can propel the stock higher over the next six to twelve months. Margins should continue to expand with more crude production coming on-line and few new projects to relieve supply bottlenecks. In addition, Valero is also spinning off its low margin Corner Store convenience chain.

Mid-Term: Rails

The biggest problem in the energy sector is production growth overloading existing transportation capacity. New pipelines have been slow to get approved and constructed.

As a result, rail transport has developed into an important stop-gap until additional capacity can be built. The advantage of rails is that they face fewer political obstacles and can respond quickly to market conditions. In 2011, crude shipments by rail increased 46% to 540,500 carloads and railroads are expected to continue to play a growing role in energy transportation.  

The best railroad levered to this trend is Canadian National Railway (NYSE: CNI). Last year, CN increased its crude shipments from 5,000 to 30,000 carloads with the company aiming to double this figure in 2013. CN is also enhancing its crude transport infrastructure by building a new terminal to serve Gulf Coast refiners. During the fourth quarter, petroleum and chemicals accounted for 17% of CN's revenue and will continue to be an important growth driver over the next two to three years.

Long-Term: Pipelines

While rails enjoy a boom over the next 8-12 quarters, it will be traditional pipelines that eventually win out as they're a significantly cheaper transport method per barrel. 

My favorite pipeline play is Enbridge (NYSE: ENB), as it has one of the best growth profiles in the industry. The company has a long list of projects with the most notable including:

Seaway Reversal: Last year, Enbridge reversed the flow of its Seaway pipeline to transport crude oil south from Cushing, OK to Freeport, TX for export. The company is working to double capacity to 850,000 barrels per day and is expected to be complete it expansion by the first quarter of 2014.

Pipeline Conversion: Last week, Enbridge announced its plan to convert an existing natural gas pipeline to carry crude to the eastern Gulf coast. The project, which still requires regulatory approval, will cost Enbridge up to $1.7 billion and is expected to be finished by 2015.

Northern Gateway: This much publicized proposal would allow Canadian energy firms to ship production through British Columbia allowing access higher international prices. The pipeline will likely be approved later this year as the federal government has historically been friendly to industry interests.

Enbridge has been slower to take advantage of the boom due to public protests, regulatory hurdles, and construction lag times. But if the company can breaks through this government logjam, it's double digit earnings growth for the next three to five years.

Conclusion

Another important takeaway is that up-stream oil and gas producers are not the best way to play this energy boom. While many of these names are posting double digit production growth, it’s slamming right into a wall of low prices thanks to bottlenecks in the supply chain.

These bottlenecks could take three to five years to clear leaving the best profit opportunities for mid-stream companies that actually move and refine product.


RobertBaillieul has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Canadian National Railway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

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