The President's effort to make natural gas a viable alternative to gasoline and diesel fuel in cars and trucks could change the fate of the ailing industry.
By Cyrus Sanati, contributor
FORTUNE — President Obama’s newfound commitment to natural gas could be the spark needed to reignite the fledgling natural gas industry, while at the same time breathing life into an array of new businesses. Overproduction, coupled with anemic demand, has recently sent natural gas prices tumbling to a 10-year low, delivering a big hit to the dozens of energy companies invested in large-scale natural gas drilling projects across the US.
But the President’s support to make natural gas a viable alternative to gasoline and diesel fuel in cars and trucks could change all that. While such a major transition would probably take years, if successful, it would provide a massive new market for the trillions of cubic feet of natural gas that have been recently discovered, helping to lift prices back up to profitable levels and opening up new industries linked to natural gas transportation.
This week, the President sketched out a plan to encourage the use of natural gas as an alternative fuel to power the nation’s long-haul trucking fleet. Through subsidies and tax breaks, the President hopes to spur the creation of a network of natural gas filling stations. The stations would, in theory, encourage trucking companies to take a tax break by either converting or buying trucks fueled by natural gas instead of diesel fuel.
Starting with the trucking industry makes sense. Those big 18-wheelers that crisscross the nation’s highways consume around a third of all oil used in the US. Getting them off diesel and on natural gas could have a major impact on the nation’s oil imports, helping to reduce the country’s large trade imbalance.
A few years ago it wouldn’t have made sense to power a vehicle on natural gas as it was more expensive than oil on an energy equivalent basis. When natural gas prices spiked around 2005, energy companies went out in search for more supply. They ended up getting more than they bargained for. The employment of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fractionation techniques unlocked billions more cubic feet of natural gas than they thought possible. As more supply hit the market, natural gas prices plummeted. It now costs more to drill for gas in many parts of the country than it’s worth. Truckers who fill up with natural gas will pay 42% less than they would if they filled up with diesel.
For the past year, energy companies have vowed to cut back on their natural gas drilling to remove excess supply from the market. Companies like Chesapeake CHK , the nation’s second largest natural gas producer, began switching from gas drilling to oil drilling earlier last year and has continued to cut production this year. The number of natural gas rigs operating in the US fell a bit over the year, but still remained elevated. But even as prices took a nosedive, production kept hitting records. Part of the reason why is the when the producers switched to oil drilling they continued to hit a lot of gas.
But if the plan is implemented and the nation’s trucking fleet is successfully converted, there could be a lot of companies that would benefit if prices start to recover.
If the government is able to build natural gas highways, there will have a massive new market for all the excess gas pulled out of the ground. Prices could rise sharply if overall demand for natural gas starts to outstrip supply.
Producers that stand to benefit are those that have more exposure to natural gas production as opposed to oil production. Southwestern Energy SWN is nearly all natural gas focused. Chesapeake, which announced this week that it was slashing production by another large slag, is still a prolific natural gas producer. Other more “gassy” companies include Range Resources and Quicksilver Energy KWK . Companies with one foot in oil and the other in natural gas would also benefit. Those include companies like Anadarko APC , Devon DVN and Encana ECA . But the big majors are not to be left out, either. ExxonMobil XOM , through its acquisition of XTO in 2010, is the largest natural gas producer in the US. Meanwhile, ConocoPhillips COP maintains some strong acreage positions in the US thanks to its acquisition of Burlington Resources back in 2006.
Fierce lobbying and a marketing blitzkrieg will probably pay off big time for billionaire oilman Boone Pickens. Much of what President Obama proposed was similar to Boone’s very own “Pickens Plan.” The plan, marketed personally by Pickens, seeks to get the US off foreign oil by shifting to domestic natural gas. It should therefore come to no surprise that Pickens visited the White House 7 times since President Obama took office.
The Pickens Plan wasn’t just a suggestion, it was a business plan. Pickens owns Clean Energy Fuels which operates a number of natural gas filling stations around the country. The company says it will have 70 stations opened by the end of 2012 in 33 states. If President Obama’s energy plan gets through congress, Mr. Pickens is going to get a lot of money from the government. He could secure large contracts to fuel commercial and government vehicles worth millions.
There are only 45 truck stops that sells liquefied natural gas, which is chilled and compressed natural gas used to power big trucks. By comparison there are 5,000 truck stops selling diesel, so the potential for growth is quite large.
Companies that build the big natural gas powered trucks also stand to make a pretty penny as demand skyrockets. Westport Innovations is one of the only manufactures of natural gas powered trucks. They designed the trucks used by UPS in a pilot program using natural gas trucks to deliver packages from the Las Vegas area to Utah and the West coast. The trucks currently cost around $200,000 a pop, twice as much as a diesel-powered truck. Government subsidies will help bridge that gap. The price of a natural gas truck should fall as demand rises.