Gas leak concerns create an investing opportunity

Overblown fears of another Gulf disaster have made France's Total one of the world's cheapest major integrated oil stocks.

By TheStockAdvisors Apr 30, 2012 11:34AM
Image: Oil drilling platform (© Scott Gibson/Corbis)By Elliott Gue, The Energy Strategist

In late March, France-based Total (TOT) announced that it had detected a natural gas leak at its Elgin Platform in the U.K. portion of the North Sea.

Although the leak inevitably led to hasty comparisons to what transpired in the Gulf of Mexico, the two disasters bear scant resemblance to one another -- but savvy investors now have a great opportunity to pick up TOT shares at a bargain price and lock in a dividend yield of roughly 6%.

The well that's the source of the Elgin leak hasn't been in production since February 2011. In fact, Total had been working to plug the well for permanent abandonment.

Further, while the source of the spill in the well in the Gulf of Mexico was almost one mile below the surface, the hydrocarbons leaking into the North Sea are coming from equipment installed on the surface platform.

Management has assigned a price tag of about $1.5 million per day to this lost production, while the cost of responding to the spill has been roughly $1 million per day. Drilling the relief wells will ratchet up this expense to about $1.5 million per day.

The firm will also likely face fines from the U.K. government and could be sued by Royal Dutch Shell and other producers that have been forced to halt operations in the area.

Total shouldn't have any problems paying these bills. One of the largest energy firms in the world, the company has $19 billion in cash on hand and about $10 billion in undrawn credit lines.

In addition, the company has roughly $750 million in third-party insurance coverage for liability and more than $1 billion in coverage for property damage related to the Elgin spill.

In short, the Elgin spill shouldn't present a major obstacle to Total's growth story; the recent selloff in the stock appears overdone, especially when you consider the company's myriad upstream growth projects around the world.

Total's biggest challenge is growing its annual production. For 2012, the company is allocating $20 billion of its $24 billion budget toward upstream operations. Total's planned expenditures on exploration and production represent an almost 18% increase from year-ago levels and are among the most aggressive of its peers.

These efforts are beginning to bear fruit. Total in 2011 announced the discovery of three giant oil fields: the Zaedyus field in French Guyana, the Aquio-X1001 in Bolivia and the Absheron field in Azerbaijan. This marked Total's best ever year in term of finding giant oil fields.

Total also has exposure to exciting deepwater projects in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, Asia and offshore South America. However, the firm's particularly strong offshore Africa -- a region in which it has a long operating history -- offer the best growth prospects.

At its current share price, Total is one of the cheapest major integrated oil stocks available and offers a dividend yield in excess of 6%, largely because of overblown concerns about the natural gas leaking from the Elgin field.

Total's American depositary receipt rates a buy up to $57 and is the newest member of our Conservative Model Portfolio. I've also added the stock to my "Best Buys" list.

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