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When natural gas prices soared to the low teens five years ago, almost no one could have predicted the United States would become a natural gas exporter in the not-too-distant future. Yet, here we are now at the dawn of a new era, with a pair of export facilities approved and 19 more on the waiting list, thanks to advances in drilling technology.

In truth, perhaps only a handful of those 19 applications to build shipment terminals will ultimately get the go-ahead from the Department of Energy. The market may not be big enough to support all of the bids, given rising gas-export competition from Canada, Australia, and Qatar. Down the road, the east African nations of Mozambique and Tanzania could join the export fray, as well.

But, good news is good news in an industry that has seen a 180-degree shift in its dynamics, from being undersupplied to dramatically oversupplied in a few short years.  Underscoring the irony of the situation, the facility that was recently approved to send liquefied natural gas, or LNG, overseas was originally designed to handle imports.

The two natural gas export terminals now under construction, Cheniere Energy’s (LNG) Louisiana facility and Freeport LNG Development LP’s recently confirmed Texas plant, are due to begin operations in late 2015 and 2017, respectively.

Granted, those in-service target dates are still a way off, and don’t do much for current natural gas prices, which are below $4.00 on a unit basis, and still weak.

Eventually, though, the incremental natural gas that is produced for exports will help to sop up the glut of gas stateside, likely leading to higher prices, possibly in the $4.50-$5.00 range. Improved realizations would provide an earnings lift to drillers, such as Exxon Mobil (XOM - Free Exxon Stock Report), Chesapeake Energy (CHK), and EOG Resources (EOG).

In the meantime, natural gas prices could receive additional support by way of accelerating energy demand from Mexico. Industrial requirements for natural gas from our neighbor to the south are on the incline, owing to flat production within its own borders and an industrial boom that includes the construction of automobile assembly plants. Exports to Mexico are readily achievable, since it has signed a Free Trade Agreement with the United States.

To be sure, one of the reasons the government nod for Freeport’s Texas facility took a while was that it sought approval to ship natural gas to Japan, which does not have a free-trade pact with Uncle Sam. Another reason for the lag was that regulators were awaiting a report sizing up the impact of exports on consumers and business. The report’s conclusion, that the economic benefits of exporting natural gas outweighed the possibility of slightly higher prices, were a clear plus for the domestic drilling industry.

Make no mistake, the shift to natural gas exports is a long-term transition. Facility construction takes several years and costs billions of dollars. For example, Freeport was seeking to raise $11 billion in financing to build its Texas plant by 2017. The high construction costs are often too much for most companies to handle on their own, causing builders to seek partners. Japan’s Chubu Electric and Osaka Gas have sizable stakes in the Freeport project, for example.

But the shift is clearly on. Japan’s surge in demand for natural gas imports following the shutdown of nuclear facilities in the wake of the Fukushima disaster is a major plus for the LNG business. Germany has also made a pledge to shut its nuclear power plants by 2022.

Other projects in motion include Sempra Energy’s (SRE) Louisiana plant, in which partners from France and Japan are on board, and Dominion Resources’ (D) Cove Point facility, both of which could be on stream in 2017.

In all, the natural gas producers and their oilfield services helpers, such as Schlumberger (SLB), Baker Hughes (BHI), and Halliburton (HAL) stand to benefit from a material boost in drilling activity in a few years to fill outgoing shipment requirements. Before then, engineering and construction companies, including Fluor (FLR) and KBR (KBR) could get a lift if their services are required to build the LNG terminals. The bottom line is that, with a natural gas export market now looming, this is an opportune time for long-term investors to take a look at some of the stocks mentioned here. 

At the time of this article’s writing, the author did not have positions in any of the companies mentioned.