Beatings have been taken three years running for natural gas producers, but there are now signals that natural gas might be ready for a break to the upside.
Here's why… (and the flip side):
A natural gas "golden age" is about to begin, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), which recently said it thinks world-wide gas use will increase by 50 per cent by 2035.
To be sure, that does seem far away, but the immediate present has also been encouraging of late.
Calgary based energy economist Peter Tertzakian is now predicting declines in existing production will trump new production adds from the big new shale plays, driving prices higher.
All the while, US industrial demand growth is the highest in a decade, according to the Energy Information Agency.
Add some hot weather in big consuming markets and we’ve seen a nice steady rise since May.
Buy low, sell high -- the contrarian view
We’re starting to see some movement on analyst price forecasts already.
FirstEnergy is a boutique brokerage firm in Calgary specializing in oil and gas. Their analyst Martin King said Tuesday that a longer-term average gas price of $5.50 is “reasonable” heading into 2012, although his own 2011 forecast still calls for an average of $4 for the year.
The difference between the two numbers sums up the opportunity in a nutshell–almost 30 per cent on price alone. It’s not unreasonable to expect stocks to follow suit with higher multiples and valuations.
Unfortunately the pure play gas producer has become an endangered species and it’s hard to find a lot of names with growing production exposed to rising spot prices.
Lean and mean: the natural gas trainwreck survivors
The good news is that the producers that managed to stick around over the past three years are bonafide survivors. They’ve taken a beating and still managed to be profitable through the down cycle.
In fact, many have thrived and have quietly posted nice share price appreciation.
Although some, like Birchcliff Energy (TSX-BIR), are near 52-week highs, there could be even bigger upside around the corner. In fact, there WILL be more upside with higher gas prices.
The company has been furiously developing its Montney play in Alberta and says it can still make money at a natural gas price of $3/mmcf . The company has posted positive earnings for nine consecutive quarters and has all of its production un-hedged to sell into a rising market.
It’s spending more than $260 million this year to double its processing capability which will give it room to ramp up volumes.
Peyto Exploration (TSX-PEY) has been in the wilderness forever it seems, but it is also testing year-highs. Both companies have made solid share price gains Peyto alone has quadrupled since the market low in 2009.
Crocotta Energy (TSX-CTA) is another survivor that was forced to sell assets and recap the company in September of 2009.
Since then its share price has doubled while it works liquids rich gas near Edson in central Alberta. Liquids are in big demand in the heavy oil patch and amounted to almost a third of Crocotta’s first quarter production. Notably, Tourmaline (TXS-TOU), which just bought out Cinch Energy (TSX-CNH), is just to the west of them.
Advantage Oil and Gas (TSX-AAV) posted a small loss of three cents in Q1, which wasn’t bad considering it spun off its oil assets to focus on its core Montney development. It has 28 million cubic feet a day hedged at Canadian prices of $6.25 a gJ, which will protect the balance sheet until a full-blown recovery takes hold.
Why There's Promise in Longer-term Exports
Looking even longer term, big players like Encana, Apache and EOG are looking at exporting LNG, or Liquid Natural Gas, off the West Coast of Canada. Natural gas prices in Asia are about double what they are in North America, and even after shipping costs producers will be making a lot more money selling gas in Asia.
But smaller players have bought in as well. Earlier this month Progress Energy (TSX-PRQ) teamed up with a Malaysian company, Petronas, one of the world’s largest LNG companies, to develop unconventional gas and build a second LNG export terminal in B.C..
These are huge multi-billion dollar investments, and the risk is all going to be project execution and raising enough money to stay in the game. Having a huge multi-national for a partner is a huge plus in that regard. But this is definitely a five-year payback; patience is the key here.
But it suggests things are looking better in a previously dead-end sector with nowhere to go but down. Six months ago, few if any analysts gas prices would be close to $5/mmcf in North America – almost everybody was predicting lower prices.
It remains to be seen if this is a sustainable recovery for producers and their investors. Timing and finding ways to profit from a rebound will be the test.
By. Keith Schaefer