With all the political turmoil in the Middle East, oil has dominated the commodities landscape, but I'm here to tell you why you need to start paying attention to one of the biggest trends in energy. Read on, and I'll fill you in on the most controversial drilling practice in the U.S., and how you can possibly make boatloads of cash from its success.
So what's all the drama about?
Natural gas prices have been low for a long time now, and people investing their dollars into the natural gas market have been sourly rewarded.
The main reason: an oversupply of gas due in part to energy companies, specifically those that search for shale gas using a controversial method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The newest saga dealing with fracking is that there are numerous claims that state:
- Fracking can contaminate groundwater and soil with terribly harmful chemicals.
- Fracking companies are overestimating their production levels at wells and cannot be trusted.
- An enormous amount of money is pouring into companies involved with extracting shale gas, and the outcome and profitability of their projects is more than uncertain.
In fact, last week, New York Times reporter Ian Urbina quoted an email from an industry analyst, who said that shale gas is "a giant Ponzi scheme, and the economics just do not work."
So is this the most dangerous play in energy?
Probably not. So far, numerous columnists and experts have come out since the New York Times article to dispute the claims against shale gas. Most notably, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has said that the conclusions drawn by Urbina were at odds with the data that was provided to him.
Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) CEO Aubrey McClendon also fired back, saying that the most sophisticated reservoir engineers and geoscientists in the world do not believe in the scarcity of shale gas. He also made sure to reiterate that his company follows all industry and U.S. GAAP standards, so there should be no question as to the reliability of well information and productivity.
If that's not enough evidence, simply look to the commodities market to verify the availability of shale gas. Prices are cheap -- so cheap, in fact, that they are at a 50% discount to European sources and are at a record 16% discount to coal. If energy companies were in fact inflating their production levels and fudging numbers, I doubt that the commodities market would be pushing down the price of natural gas so significantly. The fact is that supply is prominent, and these companies are trying their hardest to figure out what to do with all their extra reserves. Exciting? Yes. Dangerous? Not in my mind.
So why should you even care?
It's no secret that the U.S. is overly dependent on importing oil from foreign nations in order to fulfill domestic demand. However, high oil prices, geopolitical turmoil, and complicated environmental regulations all combine to make many investors turn to natural gas as a possible substitute or answer to our oil-entrenched ways.
- As emissions standards change and climate concerns grow, there will be more and more focus on reducing coal capacity in favor of things like natural gas.
- The EIA has substantially lowered its projection of natural gas imports, meaning we will have to depend more heavily on domestic, or shale gas for production.
- By the year 2030, the EIA expects shale gas to represent about 7% of total global gas production. Not just U.S. production -- but total global production!
200 reasons it could affect you
Estimates of recoverable U.S. natural gas were about 1,100 trillion cubic feet in 1990; today that number stands at about 2,587 trillion cubic feet. Shale gas production, in particular, is expected to triple between 2009 and 2035. Remarkably, the United States has 200 years of natural gas supplies.
If you're building a portfolio of stocks for yourself, or for your children, or grandchildren, and you're looking to invest for the long term (maybe not 200 years, but still, you get my point), then natural gas might just be one of the best options available to you.
So who are some of the biggest players in the sector? Chesapeake Energy, as mentioned above, in addition to Devon Energy (NYSE: DVN ) , Encana (NYSE: ECA ) , and EOG Resources (NYSE: EOG ) . Of course, the majors like ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) and Total (NYSE: TOT ) , while making the majority of their money from oil, have delved into the natural gas market as well.
But the leading independents certainly aren't going to let the big boys push them around, nor are they just going to complacently wait for the price of natural gas to go back up. Chesapeake, for instance, has said it's going to invest $1 billion over the next 10 years in natural-gas-vehicle technologies. The company is going to try and increase demand for natural gas as an alternative to gas and diesel, and it's doing so by setting up service stations and highway infrastructure. Primarily Chesapeake will be investing in two companies, Clean Energy Fuels (Nasdaq: CLNE ) and Sundrop Fuels.
The Foolish bottom line
With all the groundbreaking and new technologies, there are of course risks. Many shale gas wells are only a few years old, so their long-term productivity is somewhat unknown. Although the environmental impact, so far, doesn't seem to be overwhelming, new evidence could come to light that renders fracking a very dangerous activity. This is the nature of getting involved with something new and somewhat untested.
However, I'm more confident now than ever that natural gas, and in particular, companies positioned to take advantage of U.S. shale resources, have an unprecedented opportunity in front of them. By investing in these companies before all the smart money does (big institutions and fund managers), you might be able to profit for years to come.
If you're looking for more groundbreaking ideas, check out The Motley Fool's free report "The Only Energy Stock You'll Ever Need." In it, Fool analysts give you in-depth analysis of one stock poised to pop from the energy boom. Click here to grab a free copy.