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Upside to a natural gas downturn

Marin Katusa
0 Comments|March 19, 2012

Way to profit is by understanding how natural gas' changing role is impacting North America's energy machine as a whole

The energy market is a complex beast, its many parts interconnected through a multitude of linkages. When one part fails, the entire system reacts: certain linkages are burdened with extra stress, while other components sit idle. Only by studying the entire machine can one understand the rippling effects that stem from one change.

With the energy market, the system is made up of various sectors – oil, natural gas, uranium, coal, and alternative energies – and the countries that have each of those energy resources. The components are then linked through a long line of forces, including the geographic distributions of supply and demand, international allegiances and trade deals, global markets and commodity prices, and the ever-evolving field of international relations. A change in any country, sector, or linkage resonates through the entire system.

From this perspective, North America's shale gas revolution truly earns its accolade as a "game changer." As many people now understand, the boom in natural gas reserves and production in the United States and Canada is changing the way North America will power itself in the future.

What a lot of people do not understand is how to profit from this shift.

Natural gas prices are depressed and expected to remain so for the short to medium term, so investing in natural gas options or a natural gas exchange-traded fund is not likely to bring home the big bucks anytime soon. Domestic natural gas equities are an even riskier idea – most producers are scaling back production and selling assets as they hunker down in preparation for a tough few years.

In this case, the way to profit is by understanding how natural gas' changing role is impacting North America's energy machine as a whole. Cheap natural gas is prompting utilities to switch from coal to gas where possible. The confluence of cheap natural gas and a risky global economy has droves of investors turning their backs on green energy, the sector that was such a market darling only a few years ago. Farther down the road, North Americans are debating – and in places implementing – a range of strategies to take advantage of the continent's newfound abundance of natural gas, from natural-gas-powered transport trucks to exportation of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Isaac Newton showed us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That is why every downside force in the energy sector creates upside opportunities elsewhere. The challenge is finding them. It takes an understanding of the entire global energy machine to figure out what areas are benefitting from the changing landscape.

For every down, there's an up

Natural gas seems to know that it is heading for several years in the doldrums and, in fighting spirit, it is trying to take a couple of other energy sectors down with it.

With coal, it is succeeding, but there are still lots of coal opportunities outside of the United States. With uranium, the global supply-demand scenario and America's position within it is in such flux right now that cheap natural gas is doing little to reduce America's need for U3O8. Then there's the well-field services sector, where the successes born from horizontal drilling and fracturing created the gas supply glut that is forcing production cuts. Far from slowing down, however, well-field service companies are busier than ever as the oil industry adopts fracking to access shale oil, and the deepwater Gulf of Mexico continues to test the limits of drilling technology.

Coal

The sector feeling the worst impact from gas' downturn is thermal coal. Demand for the coal burned to generate power in the U.S. is plummeting as utilities take advantage of the cheapest natural gas in 10 years. Consumption of coal to produce electricity is expected to fall 2% this year to its lowest level since 1992, while gas-fired consumption rises 5.6%. Making matters worse, winter heating demand is falling in the face of mild weather: through January, this has been the warmest winter since 2006 and the fourth-warmest on record. With natural gas and warm weather conspiring against it, coal demand is decidedly down – in the second week of February, coal consumption was 4.3% lower than it was a year ago.

Exports are not going to provide any help. Last year, Europe bought 50% of America's thermal coal exports, but demand from the EU is shrinking as the region struggles to stave off a recession. The economies of the EU shrank 0.3% in the fourth quarter of 2011 compared to the previous quarter, the first contraction since mid-2009.

In response, U.S. thermal coal prices are deteriorating. Appalachian coal, the U.S. thermal-coal benchmark, fell 15% in January alone to sit near US$60 per tonne and has moved little since (by comparison, Australian thermal coal is currently fetching almost US$120 per tonne). Mining costs to dig thermal coal out of the ground range from $60 to $75 per tonne for Central Appalachian producers, which mean margins are already razor thin or nonexistent. Several major U.S. thermal coal producers are reducing output and in some cases closing mines, including Arch Coal, Patriot Coal, and Alpha Natural Resources.

Now for some good news. Thermal coal prices in the United States may be faltering, but that doesn't mean that coal is in the doldrums across the globe. In fact, quite the contrary: global thermal-coal demand is expected to increase by 50% from 2008 to 2035, with the vast majority of increased demand coming from the developing world. That equates to a demand increase of 1.5% each year, and production is not quite expected to keep up to that pace. Rising demand plus not-quite-enough supply equals investment opportunities – maybe not in the U.S., but elsewhere.

That's just thermal coal. There's another component to the coal world: metallurgical coal, the higher-carbon coal used to make steel. Supplies are even tighter with metallurgical coal, which is why Casey Research recommends that energy investors have exposure to "met coal" through either equities or a fund.

Uranium

The abundance of cheap gas has utilities looking to build more gas-fired power plants. Some observers have suggested that this will be to the detriment of the nuclear sector in the U.S. But that perspective is pretty shortsighted.

It is true that some utilities have delayed plans for new nuclear plants by a few years, primarily in response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan and the ensuing public backlash against uranium. But that backlash is already fading; and those delays will have only a minimal impact on the nuclear sector in the U.S. Five new generators are on track for completion this decade, including two reactors approved just a few weeks ago (the first new reactor approvals in the U.S. in over 30 years). Those will add to the 104 reactors that are already in operation around the country and already produce 20% of the nation's power.

Those reactors will eat up 19,724 tonnes of U3O8 this year, which represents 29% of global uranium demand. If that seems like a large amount, it is! The U.S. produces more nuclear power than any other country on earth, which means it consumes more uranium that any other nation. However, decades of declining domestic production have left the U.S. producing only 4% of the world's uranium.

With so little homegrown uranium, the United States has to import more than 80% of the uranium it needs to fuel its reactors. Thankfully, for 18 years a deal with Russia has filled that gap. The "Megatons to Megawatts" agreement, whereby Russia downblends highly enriched uranium from nuclear warheads to create reactor fuel, has provided the U.S. with a steady, inexpensive source of uranium since 1993. The problem is that the program is coming to an end next year.

At present the world is producing just enough uranium to meet global demand, but this precarious balance is already tipping. There are dozens of new reactors under construction in China, India, South Korea, and Russia that will need fuel. Production increases from new mines and mine expansions are not expected to keep pace. The race to secure uranium resources is on, and for the first time the U.S. has to compete.

The answer is domestic production. The rocks underneath the United States hold lots of uranium, enough to make a significant contribution to the country's uranium needs. The biggest impediment to mining this resource is public opposition to the nebulous dangers of uranium mining, but as the Megatons program ends Americans will start to see that the alternatives to domestic production are decidedly worse: competing against China, India, and the like for uranium is an expensive and unstable way to acquire a desperately needed energy resource. In fact, at Casey Research we have been vocal in predicting a demand-driven boom in U.S. uranium production. We even expect to see "Made in America" uranium garnering a premium over imported yellowcake, in the same way that in-demand Brent crude oil earns a premium above oversupplied West Texas Intermediate crude.

Well-field services

The techniques used to unlock natural gas from shale reservoirs – horizontal drilling and well fracturing – worked so well that they created a supply glut that is altering the global energy scene. That supply glut is now prompting natural gas producers to cut back on output, which you might think would be bad news for the well-field service companies that complete those tasks.

Not to worry: North America is also in the midst of a crude-oil production boom, and the common theme linking most of the continent's new wells is highly technical drilling and production methods. The purveyors of those techniques are the continent's well-field service companies, and their services are very much in demand.

Well-field service companies have been able to compensate for lost gas fracking business by shifting to oil, as the oil industry has adopted fracking to unlock its shale deposits. If you've read about the oil production boom that is keeping North Dakota's economy hopping, you read about the Bakken shale formation. In the Bakken, wells are drilled horizontally to follow along the oil-bearing layer, and then high-pressure fluids are forced down the well to fracture the shale and release the oil.

Meanwhile, the challenges of producing oil in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico continue to test the limits of drilling technology. Pushing through kilometers of water before drilling through just as much rock and then extracting and transporting oil from a platform rocked by waves and threatened by hurricanes demands a wealth of specialized equipment and operators.

Most oil and gas companies do not own drill rigs, nor do they actually drill or fracture their own wells. They contract those jobs out to companies that drill and frac for a living, known as well-field service companies. And with wells in America's booming oil and gas fields requiring more complicated and more technical services with each passing year, the services these companies provide are essential to North America's oil and gas producers.

The Take-Home

When a machine is as interconnected as the global energy trade, no part can change without impacting the rest. The dramatic debut of shale gas in North America has done far more than just depress domestic natural-gas prices – a shift of this magnitude has impacts that reach far beyond one commodity or one country. Some of those impacts are negative, but hidden in the doom and gloom lie opportunities to profit. The key is to open your horizons and embrace the complexity and interconnectedness of the global energy machine… either that, or find a good mechanic who can do the job for you.

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