Prices at the pump got you down? The solution to your financial angst is closer than you might think. In fact, it's right under our feet. And some say it will provide a better investment opportunity than the Internet revolution.
A crude reality
Oil prices are creeping back towards pre-recession highs, and many expect the worst is yet to come. "As demand grows in the next decade, we will not have the oil production capacity to meet demand," said Hess (NYSE: HES ) CEO John Hess. "Supply will then have to ration demand, and prices will skyrocket -- with the likely outcome of bringing the world's economy to its knees."
That sounds pretty scary, but fear not -- high oil prices do a wonderful job of spurring innovation, and any climb in crude prices will drive more customers toward alternative fuels. And among alt-energy sources, natural gas is the king.
The natural choice
First and foremost, natural gas is cheap. Historically, refueling a natural gas vehicle costs about 30% less than refilling your gas tank.
It's also clean. The EPA concluded that compressed-natural-gas vehicles emit substantially fewer harmful emissions than gas-powered vehicles. In fact, the Honda (NYSE: HMC ) natural-gas-powered Civic was recently awarded the "greenest vehicle of the year" by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Similarly, Toyota (NYSE: TM ) has also announced plans to develop models powered by natural gas.
Furthermore, it's abundant -- and it's ours. Did you know that the United States is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas? According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, America currently has 237,726 billion cubic feet of proven reserves. That equals roughly the amount needed to meet the United State's entire energy demands for a decade. Even better, many people think that figure dramatically understates the real amount of reserves under our soil.
Despite the advantages of natural gas, natural gas vehicles struggle to gain a foothold in the American market for two reasons. First, the natural gas-powered Honda Civic fetches a $6,935 premium to its gasoline-powered counterpart. Most consumers can't save enough money refueling the car to offset the price of purchasing it. Second, there's precious little refueling infrastructure, with approximately 1,100 natural gas refueling stations nationwide at present, compared to approximately 117,000 regular gas stations.
To summarize, the fuel is cheap, but the car isn't -- and even if it were, there's no place to fill 'er up.
A plan to fuel the future
If the incremental cost of a natural gas vehicle falls, and natural gas refueling stations profliferate, a shift toward natural gas transportation would begin.
This is what the NATGAS Act, a bill proposed by Congress, aims to do. The legislation augments the current tax credit available to potential natural gas vehicle buyers. For example, the incremental cost of the natural gas Civic would be reduced from $6,935 to $1,387. In addition, the bill gives big incentives for installing natural gas refueling pumps.
The legislation has stalled in Congress for two years, but the latest spike in gas prices might finally force action. Natural gas advocate T. Boone Pickens (who notably stands to profit from the fuel's wider adoption) predicts that a natural gas bill will pass by July of this year, although he has been overly optimistic in the past.
Newly elected Speaker of the House John Boehner recently spoke of tackling energy in "bite-sized chunks." One area he mentioned specifically was a bill focused on natural gas vehicles. As a Fuel Systems Solutions (Nasdaq: FSYS ) shareholder, this brought tears of joy to my eyes.
Clean Energy Fuels (Nasdaq: CLNE ) CEO Andrew Littlefair expects a new version of the NATGAS Act, similar to the old version, to be introduced later this month. If Congress passes this legislation, a major shift toward alternative energy could begin.
Nat gas plays
Investors can capitalize on the potential trend by investing in a natural gas vehicle stock. The three main candidates are Westport Innovations (Nasdaq: WPRT ) , Fuel Systems Solutions, and Clean Energy Fuels.
Clean Energy Fuels is the pure play, because the company focuses on the emerging American market. Westport Innovations and Fuel Systems Solutions are more geographically diverse, but they'll still greatly benefit from a trend toward natural gas transportation in the American market. Of the three, I like Fuel Systems Solutions best, thanks to the strength of its balance sheet.
For the more risk-averse, there's General Electric (NYSE: GE ) . GE recently acquired Dresser, a company that makes natural gas servicing equipment. This acquisition puts GE in prime position to capitalize on the natural gas boom.
The bottom line
If natural gas is the energy game-changer that many predict, now is the time to get ahead of the trend. That makes natural gas vehicle stocks a good place to be. If potential legislation passes in the coming months, it could jumpstart the entire industry.
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