What do overseas LNG sales mean for US?

The Energy Department's conditional approval of liquefied natural gas exports could provide benefits for American energy, engineering and construction companies.

By Jim J. Jubak May 20, 2013 6:50PM

Image: Natural gas (© Ron Chapple/Jupiterimages)On Friday, the U.S. Department of Energy approved what is only the second permit to export liquefied natural gas from the United States.

The permit went to the Freeport LNG project in Texas, a joint project of Freeport LNG Investments, ZHA FLNG Purchaser, Dow Chemical subsidiary Texas LNG Holdings and Turbo LNG, a subsidiary of Japan’s Osaka Gas. The permit will allow Freeport to export up to 1.4 billion cubic feet to gas a day. Subject to environmental review and final regulatory approval, Freeport plans to begin exports in 2017.

The permit went to Freeport, but I think the immediate profits will go to Chicago Bridge and Iron, the engineering company most likely to win the bulk of work on Freeport.

Like Cheniere Energy’s (LNG) Sabine Pass project in Louisiana, the first project to get an export permit, Freeport began its life back in 2005 as a terminal to import liquefied natural gas into the United States.

With the U.S. boom in natural gas from shale, the flow has reversed. A total of 19 other projects are waiting for permits. Without a permit companies can export liquefied natural gas only to a short list of countries with which the U.S. has signed free trade agreements.

That list doesn’t include big markets such as Japan. Two Japanese companies, Osaka Gas (OSGSY) and Chubu Electric (CHUEF) had signed agreements in 2012 -- to acquire production from the first train at Freeport beginning in 2017. Freeport’s current plans call for spending $10 billion to build three production trains with a capacity of 1.9 billion cubic feet a day.

I don’t think this approval has a negative effect on Cheniere Energy. If anything, it puts a time line on how long a lead Cheniere has in this market. Right now it looks like Cheniere will have two years when it has the U.S. LNG export market pretty much to itself -- and then an even longer period before enough U.S. competitors get their capacity on line and begin to depress LNG prices in overseas markets. Right now natural gas sells for $4 per million BTUs (British Thermal Units) in the United States, $10 per million BTUs in Europe, and $15 per million BTUs in Japan.

The big winners in the Freeport announcement -- for investors anyway, since they can’t invest in Freeport itself -- are the engineering and construction companies, Chicago Bridge and Iron (CBI), Jacobs Engineering (JEC), and Fluor (FLR), for example, that will build these LNG plants.

The company in that group that benefits most from Freeport itself is Chicago Bridge and Iron, which worked on the front-end engineering and design for the plant and is a front-runner for a big share of additional contract work. (About $4 billion in total, I’d estimate.) Chicago Bridge and Iron has one of the sector’s biggest weightings toward LNG -- the source of about 33% of the company’s profits now.

Estimates put total capital spending on LNG in North America at about $30 billion from 2015-2020. The company has also formed joint ventures to work on liquefied natural gas projects in Australia and Papua New Guinea.

As of May 20, I’m adding shares of Chicago Bridge & Iron to my Jubak’s Picks portfolio with a December 2013 target price of $74 a share.

Full disclosure: I don’t own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this post in my personal portfolio. When in 2010 I started the mutual fund I manage, Jubak Global Equity Fund, I liquidated all my individual stock holdings and put the money into the fund. The fund did own shares of Cheniere Energy as of the end of March. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of March see the fund’s portfolio.


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