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CFA Society Chicago hosted approximately 140 people at the University Club of Chicago overlooking Millennium Park on Sept. 23, 2014, to discuss energy investment opportunities at a thought-provoking conference entitled “A Seismic Shift: The Changing Dynamics of the Global Energy Scene.” I served on the planning committee for this event and can tell you that we were thrilled to have two panels of experts who provided insights ranging from global, macroeconomic and geopolitical energy issues all the way down to sector-specific investment ideas across the energy value chain. The dramatic increase in U.S. proved oil and gas reserves due to fracking is expected to drive a reindustrialization of North America. It should be noted that the panelists did not provide specific recommendations to buy or sell particular securities or provide investment advice.

Douglas Brown, Senior Vice President and Chief Investment Officer of Exelon Corporation (EXC) and CFA Chicago Board Member, gave a warm welcome to the attendees and emphasized that this is an important time of energy transformation for North America. Tim Greening, formerly Managing Director at Fitch Ratings, moderated our first panel discussion with Olga Bitel,Portfolio Strategist at William Blair, Rachel Bronson, Senior Fellow for Global Energy at The Chicago Council on Global
 Affairs and Jan Kalicki, Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. Read more about all of our panelists here.

Geopolitical and Macroeconomic Issues (Panel 1)

The energy environment is in a state of revolution.

Jan Kalicki, Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, started the program out at a sweltering pace by announcing that the “energy environment is in a state of revolution” as world energy production is shifting from the Middle East to North America. Drawing from his published expertise on “Energy and Security: Strategies for a World in Transition,” he quickly pointed out that the newfound oil and gas supplies in the United States has made the country more energy secure but not necessarily “energy independent.” Rather, it’s better to use the term “energy interdependence” to describe today’s situation because energy is a global commodity and the idea of energy isolationism is an illusion. Kalicki pointed out that the U.S. still needs to develop a national and global energy strategy that should include “free trade in energy” like LNG exports to Japan while noting that Japan does not have a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States. Furthermore, 85% of the Outer Continental Shelf still remains off limits for development. He stated that the Keystone XL Pipeline Project by TransCanada (TRP) is a good idea for the U.S., safer and more effective than attempting to ship oil by railcar and a better alternative than allowing it to go to other markets abroad. The shale plays in the U.S. have been successfully developed by private, rather than governmental, investment and the U.S. is now at a competitive advantage to other nations with less favorable land use/access policies for energy development. Finally, Kalicki noted that Russia is facing a major threat of economic recession and huge flights of human and financial capital. GazProm is the largest energy monopoly in the world and only recently has the European Union begun to move against it. Also, Eastern Europe remains far more susceptible to gas shortages from Russia than Western Europe.

A global disruptive energy boom will drive economic growth where resources are exploited.

As an economist, Olga Bitel, Portfolio Strategist at William Blair, quickly pointed out that economic growth is always subject to resource constraints. A decade ago horizontal drilling and fracking in North America was just getting started but through a favorable regulatory regime and “lucky” geology the U.S. is experiencing an unprecedented energy boom which will eventually be a global phenomenon that will affect every country in the world. Secondly, there have been continuous changes in renewable energy technology that will be just as disruptive to energy markets as we’ve seen with fracking. Thirdly, people are actually starting to talk about decarbonization of the global economy. On environmental issues, Bitel emphasized that they are far too important to ignore – especially as it relates to coal usage and the health issues associated with air pollution. She explained that the market will eventually find a way for the energy to flow – even if it’s not along an optimal path. Therefore, it’s important to get the regulation right on things like the Keystone XL Pipeline project where a pipeline through relatively unpopulated areas would be a safer alternative than railcar transportation. Bitel believes the environmental issues associated with fracking (water pollution, etc.) can be properly resolved with the right regulation and protections when properly considering the economic costs and benefits. Finally, Bitel made a variety of points regarding energy markets, prices and trade including:

LNG: The U.S. has gone from contemplating more LNG import facilities to approving LNG export terminals. This wasn’t in anybody’s playbook a decade ago. The approval of U.S. LNG exports was so significant that it was felt in foreign exchange markets!

Natural Gas: Geology and water access issues may delay development across the globe but China and other parts of the world will develop new gas resources this decade. BASF has announced plans to invest in a specialties chemicals plant in Louisiana which demonstrates the market’s view that natural gas prices will be cheaper in the U.S. for a considerable period of time. And that the U.S. is the best place to make significant energy investments. Yet, gas prices will eventually start to move closer to a more central world market price as time goes on … in the 3, 5 or 10-year time frame.

Renewables: Wind and solar power are commercially available and costs on par with fossil fuel energy. It’s not just being developed in the desert anymore. Germany is producing 20% of their electricity from wind today and Denmark has been exporting energy for a decade. During the first six months of 2014 the U.S. has seen tremendous growth in new utility-scale solar ad renewable power development.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly, August 2014 edition with June 2014 data

Note: Data include facilities with a net summer capacity of 1 MW and above only.

Oil: About 80% of net new oil production compensates for the decline in field production alone while only 20% provides for new demand. Therefore, each new oil well costs more to develop. Globally, risks in Argentina and Venezuela continue to be significant where assets could be confiscated on a dime. Oil prices are expected to be broadly stable and declining in real terms.

Utilities: The utility industry has been about as stable and staid as you can get for the last 100 years with a regulatory environment that is still stuck in first part of 20th century. There is no forward-thinking regulatory policy in Germany and Japan at this time. We need a new electricity market to properly compensate for different and changing sources of electricity. If we get this right, then the required investment will come forward.

U.S. Dollar: The U.S. dollar is the global reserve currency and the source of global liquidity. We’ve seen lower levels of U.S. dollars flowing abroad, and a lower current account deficit, because energy imports are shrinking quite rapidly and over the next three years the U.S. will begin exporting LNG. In light of fewer dollars flowing out of the country there will be a higher premium for U.S. dollars that will lead to a rising value of the dollar. The energy boom will create more stable oil and commodity prices globally. As monetary conditions tighten, the Federal Reserve may not have to move as fast on increasing interest rates due to the reduced impact of energy on inflation.

The geopolitics of energy is changing on a daily basis.

Rachel Bronson, Senior Fellow for Global Energy at The Chicago Council on Global
 Affairs, is an expert on energy issues in the Middle East and author of “Thicker than Oil – America’s Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia.” She emphasized that changing energy geopolitics are everywhere in the press today. Examples include, territorial disputes between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea, driven by potential oil and gas under the waters, and ISIS capturing oil resources in Iraq and selling it on the black market. Nations throughout the world are now aggressively seeking access to energy resources. China’s huge demand for energy and air quality problems are driving its energy resource development. Although Russia can meet a lot of Chinese demand, the Chinese are trying to make themselves as self-reliant as possible and seem to be managing it quite well. China’s demand is so large that it will be importing coal for a long time and it remains to be seen who else would be willing to finance infrastructure in China – other than the Chinese. Poorer countries, like Morocco, are developing new energy resources to make them more economically competitive by exploiting their solar resources, reducing energy imports and possibly exporting energy in the future. The energy landscape continues to change dramatically across the globe as the U.S. moves from being an energy consumer to a producer, China transitions from an energy exporter to an importer and Israel develops new resources in the Mediterranean Sea.

Bronson also emphasized that the U.S. is more energy secure but not energy independent. Although there are 3 million more barrels of oil going on the market per day from new resources the market has lost just as much from political turmoil in other parts of the world. Even if oil from the Middle East doesn’t flow to the U.S. it will flow to Asia and the Middle East will remain a strategically important place in the energy landscape. For example, Saudi Arabia has been the global “swing producer” of oil because it doesn’t produce to capacity and has been able to put more oil on the market in response to a crisis. But if, for some reason, Saudi Arabia can no longer play this role as the swing producer (i.e. due to the lack of a smooth political transition, etc.) oil prices could still shoot to $200 per barrel.

Bronson concluded with a sobering warning on the riskiness of Germany’s huge bet to transform its economic base through its tremendous shift to renewable energy sources and a more climate-sensitive economy. She indicated that we should be paying daily attention to Germany’s energy plan because if it doesn’t work then it could pull down the German economy and much of Europe as well. The problems include the fact that the energy resources are far away from the demand centers and Germany lacks the infrastructure to get the energy to where it’s needed. In addition, electric prices in Germany are currently twice the cost of the U.S. and that may push more energy intensive companies out of the country. As Germany attempts to replace its nuclear power resources with renewables it’s incurring huge costs, with no guarantee of a reliable outcome, and increasing its reliance on coal. Japan is wresting with the same issue in a country where they rely on energy imports for over 90% of their demand and finding that it’s very difficult to turn off the nuclear plants.

Investment Opportunities Across the Energy Value Chain (Panel 2)

Herve Wilczynski, Partner at A.T. Kearney in Houston with over 20 years of oil and gas experience, moderated the second panel and transitioned the discussion from the geopolitical and macroeconomic environment to sector-specific investment ideas. Wilczynski underscored the magnitude of the shift in energy to North America with the fact that Exxon/Mobil, one of the global super majors, is relocating its headquarters to a massive facility in The Woodlands near Houston, Texas. He observed that it’s hard to image that on April 5, 2005 Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said, “North America’s limited capacity to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) has effectively restricted our access to the world’s abundant gas supplies.” And today the U.S. is playing in a global energy world with Russia and Qatar. Wilczynski introduced the members of Panel 2 which were Mr. Mark Ermano, Vice President Chemical Market Insights at IHS Chemcial, Mr. Terry Smith CFA, Executive Director, Head of Credit Research – Americas at UBS Global 
Asset Management, Mr. Anthony “Tony” Lindsay P.E.R&D Director – Advanced Energy Systems Group – Gas Technology Institute (GTI) and Mr. Ron Mullenkamp CFA, a professional investment manager and founder of Mullenkamp & Company, Inc. The panel probed the factors that could impact the sustainability of the U.S. energy revolution including regulatory, infrastructure, labor shortages, etc. and were generally bullish about the the prospect of significant demand growth in areas like chemicals, transportation, power generation and a number of other areas noted below.

Base chemicals and plastics drive a renaissance in U.S. manufacturing

Mark Ermano, Vice President Chemical Markets Insights at IHS Chemical, quickly made the connection to our day-to-day lives on the “far right hand side of the energy value chain” and explained that chemical industry is producing plastics which enable modern living through thousands of durable and non-durable goods like cars, phones, trash bags, etc. all derived from energy feedstocks on the left side of the energy value chain such as oil, natural gas, coal or biomass which are transformed into different chemicals and eventually into the retail goods we use every day.

The energy revolution has created a North American manufacturing renaissance in the United States. Chemical plants require three basic things to beat the competition. First, access to a low cost Btu feedstock for a long period of time that allows the plant to earn its return on and of capital. Importantly, the cost of new refining or derivative complexes can range from $20 million to $50 million per plant. Second, locating new plants where demand is growing the fastest reduces logistics costs and provides a competitive advantage. Third, use of the right chemical manufacturing technology provides a competitive advantage. BASF’s announcement that they will not use steam cracking but go directly from natural gas to propylene in a world-scale methane-to-propylene complex in the U.S., which requires three times the conventional investment, clearly demonstrates their favorable long-term market view of U.S. natural gas supplies and pricing.

Today, due to the abundant new supplies of low cost natural gas in the United States, we are seeing a massive wave of new investment in the U.S. petrochemical industry to bring new capacity on line in the 2015-2020 timeframe. Previously, the petrochemical industry was building abroad and the U.S. had not added a new cracker since 2000. However, we now expect to see an ethylene-based cracker built in the United States by the end of 2015. These investments will require huge amounts of basic infrastructure, labor, iron, ironworkers, welders, electricians, etc. Furthermore, since demand in the U.S. market is forecasted to be relatively stable most of the new products derived from these chemicals will be exported and new infrastructure companies will be needed to support that function. China’s emerging middle class is expected to reach the purchasing power of the U.S. consumer in the next 5, 10 or 15 years and other emerging economies will drive demand. Finally, watch for new foreign flows of investment capital into the U.S. chemical market.

Potential Winners: Midstream companies. Feedstock companies. North American fundamental gas, ethane and chemical derivatives manufacturers – now seeing the highest levels of profits ever experienced as higher-cost producers abroad set the price and low-cost U.S. producers extract high levels of margin in that chain. Winners may include base chemicals and plastics manufacturers like BASF and SABIC. Also, infrastructure providers, pipe, valves, iron, welders, electricians, etc.

U.S. energy infrastructure expands in many directions…

Terry Smith CFA, Executive Director, Head of Credit Research – Americas at UBS Global
 Asset Management, believes that North America will have an economic advantage from shale gas for at least the next two decades. Furthermore, the U.S. will be in a position to export its shale gas/oil intellectual property, engineers, patents and designs to the rest of the world. He sees more natural gas liquids (NGL) fractionation plants being built and noted that there are 14 new LNG facilities currently being planned.

This reindustrialization of North America drives demand for everything from infrastructure and labor to chemicals, coatings, and technology start-ups unrelated to IT. And many of those workers buy new pickup trucks, which boosts the auto industry, as well. Solar and wind farms also benefit from low cost natural gas prices because these facilities need a reliable source of backup power from a combined cycle gas turbine. The transportation sector will see more long-haul trucking converted to LNG while ethanol producers may transition to isobutenol as an oxygenator. Smith suggests that water handling will be an area of enormous opportunity due to the amount of water necessary for fracking and the difficulty to transport this amount of water by truck which could lead to new long-haul fresh water pipelines. And more water will also be needed to clean the solar panels and wind turbines. That revolution in water technology will also provide a boost to agriculture, and to potable water for cities and industry. Finally, Smith observes that most of the new solutions will not eliminate the others so investment analysts should focus their research on the cost/benefit of the opportunity, the market size and the competition.

Potential Winners: Wind and solar farms. Combined-cycle gas turbines. Natural gas liquids (propane, butane, ethane, etc.). U.S infrastructure and labor providers. LNG tank manufacturers for long-haul transportation (tanks, valves, hoses, etc.), LNG for locomotive engines, tugs, barges and ferries. Increasing demand for carbon fiber. Water handling and transportation.

The third time’s a charm … natural gas as a transportation fuel.

Anthony “Tony” Lindsay P.E.R&D Director – Advanced Energy Systems Group – Gas Technology Institute (GTI), explained that the U.S. is currently in its third major “wave” of developing natural gas as a transportation fuel. The first wave occurred as a result of the perceived oil shortages in the mid 1970s and some new natural gas vehicle products were developed at that time. However, when gasoline prices dropped, the wind was taken out of the sails of the first wave. The second wave was driven by two key pieces of U.S. legislation: the Clean Air Act Amendment (CAA) of 1990 and the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPACT-92). The tighter vehicle emissions standards of the CAA led the big three automakers to produce a number of new natural gas vehicle offerings including the Ford Crown Victoria, F-150 pickup trucks, cargo and passenger vans, Chevy Cavalier, pick-ups and full-size vans, and Chrysler also introduced its B-series vans for compressed natural gas (CNG). In addition, the EPACT-92 mandated certain fleets of vehicles to switch from gasoline or diesel to alternative non-petroleum energy sources like natural gas. However, the legislation lacked significant penalties, there was not much “pull” from fleet owners because the economics were only marginal, and the second wave also crashed to the shore. Today, we’re in the third wave and Lindsay believes it’s a “perfect storm” for natural gas vehicles (NGVs) because the economics are favorable, environmental concern is high and the U.S. has an abundant, low-cost supply of natural gas from the shale revolution that can finally provide the U.S. with the energy security that was previously lacking.

Lindsay explained that approximately 26% of the energy consumed in the United States each year is from natural gas. And the U.S. uses approximately 95 quads (quadrillion BTUs) of energy per year. Yet, the transportation sector uses less than 1% in vehicles (which is only about 140,000 natural gas powered vehicles) while the top five nations using natural gas vehicles are Iran, Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil and India, each with over 1 million NGVs on their roads! After evaluating the U.S. NGV market, Mr. Lindsay believes that high-usage, heavy-duty vehicles represent the best opportunity for near-term growth because these vehicles consume from 5,000 to 30,000 gallons of fuel per year and that produces enough savings to justify the incremental vehicle and fueling investment cost thereby creating a 1.3 Tcf/yr growing market for gas as a transportation fuel. Notably, Waste Management’s (WM) fleet of about 1,700 CNG and LNG vehicles is the largest in the waste industry. Although the light-duty car and truck market is as large as 16 Tcf/year those vehicles typically consume only about 1,000 gallons per year and the U.S. currently lacks a robust compressed natural gas refueling infrastructure to conveniently support them. However, if a low-cost natural gas home refueling device could be developed then it may be a significant game changer in the light-duty market.

Potential Winners: Refuse haulers, cement mixers, regional fleets with the ability to refuel at a central location, fleets of taxis serving airports, CNG/LNG storage tank manufacturers and those that make the materials that go into the tanks, lighter weight higher strength composite cylinders with carbon fiber wrap, high pressure gas components, hoses, fittings, meters and valves. Manufacturers of heat exchangers used in the LNG industry as well as engine manufacturers serving medium and heavy-duty truck applications.

Natural Gas: An Energy Game Changer

Ron Muhlenkamp CFA, a professional investment manager, founder of Muhlenkamp & Company, Inc. and author of “Ron’s Road to Wealth: Insights for the Curious Investor,” provided an astounding range of perspectives from his experience as a farmer, investor, engineer (M.I.T) and Harvard M.B.A. Mr. Muhlenkamp’s farm sits directly on top of the Marcellus Shale in Butler County, Pennsylvania and he began by providing the audience a real education on natural gas from his booklet entitled “Natural Gas: An Energy Game Changer” 

First, in Figure 1 below, he points out that natural gas has been priced significantly below crude oil on an equivalent price per MMBtu basis since 2009. This dramatic divergence in price is huge since the two have been fairly close on a $/MMBtu basis since 1995. While many in the Northeast still heat their homes with oil those who have converted to natural gas are now realizing significant savings due to the availability of low cost natural gas.

Figure 1 Natural Gas and Crude Oil Prices, 1995-2013

Source: Bloomberg; Oil; Generic 1 ‘CO’ Future, Natural Gas; Generic 1 ‘NG” Future delivery to Henry Hub

Second, in Figure 4 below, he shows the steadily increasing use of natural gas for U.S. electric generation since 1996 and the corresponding decline in the use of coal-fired generation. Utilities switch from coal to gas-fired generation at about $3.00 per Mcf so more access to lower-cost gas supplies reduces both home heating costs and electric bills.

Figure 4 Percent of Total U.S. Electricity Net Generation: Electric Power Sector by Energy Source, 1960–2012

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration; Electric Power Monthly. Table 7.2b and 8.2b

Third, Figure 5 shows that Barnett Shale fracturing began in 1997, Marcellus shale in 2005 and Bakken Shale in 2008. Importantly, U.S. oil and dry natural gas proved reserves began increasing dramatically after these events reaching 29 Tcf of gas and almost 27 (bnb) billion new barrels by 2011. Muhlenkamp notes that the U.S will be drilling the Marcellus Shale for a long time and in fact has more supply than available pipeline takeaway capacity to deliver it to New England. Bottom line, the last five years have been an energy game changer!

Figure 5 U.S. Oil and Dry Natural Gas Proved Reserves, 1979-2011

From an environmental standpoint, Mr. Muhlenkamp points out that by switching from coal to natural gas the carbon content of the fuel source is cut by more than 50%. From a land use perspective, if we consider the fact that 80 windmills are equivalent to about 10 gas wells then wind farms are not be as “clean” as we might think. In addition, although fracking requires significant amounts of water most people don’t know that burning 1 Mcf of natural gas produces 11 gallons of fresh water in vapor form. Mullenkamp turns the equation on its head by stating that by burning natural gas you produce fresh water at 8 cents/gallon and you get the energy for free. Going further, if you use salt water for fracking (subject to salinity limits in the wells) the well effectively becomes a desalinization plant. Agreeing with many of the other speakers, Mr. Muhlenkamp also believes we are taking a step “backward” when we produce fuel (ethanol) from food (corn) since historically farmers increased food production only after moving from horses (which required acreage to feed them) to tractors.

Potential Winners: Natural gas pipelines. Labor markets where skills to work in the oil and gas industry can be acquired in 12 to 18 months at junior colleges. Natural gas consumers – benefiting from prices at $3.00 to $5.00 Mcf but putting pressure on producers where break even is at about $3.00 per Mcf. Producers benefiting by drilling horizontally 5 to 8 times, in different directions, from the same gas pad saving approximately $500,000 per well. Also see p. 52 of “Natural Gas: An Energy Game Changer.