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Natural gas prices in the United States reached a point they hadn't seen since 2002, dropping below $2 yesterday. This led to a drop in the share price of producers such as Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) , which fell as much as 3.8% yesterday. Though it has since recovered, the continued reduction in natural gas prices could affect some companies going forward.
Producers are suffering
As natural gas prices continue to decrease, natural gas producers may cease production. The U.S. is using 12% less natural gas per day than usual. This has led many gas producers to take steps to hedge some of their reliance on natural gas. Calgary-based EnCana (NYSE: ECA ) , North America's second-largest natural gas producer, has taken numerous steps to shield its balance sheet from further decreases in natural gas prices, including selling assets and renewing and extending credit facilities. Chesapeake Energy has sold land assets in the past to cover expenses, and has done so again, selling some shale acreage in Oklahoma to ExxonMobil for $2.6 billion, closing the gap on what some analysts estimate as a $3 billion shortfall this year.
Benefits for customers... and investors
Low natural gas prices could ultimately benefit customers in other ways as well. Utah gas utility Questar (NYSE: STR ) has sought approval from state regulators to refund $42 million to customers, resulting in an average credit of $34.50 in May. Since the company makes its money delivering gas to customers, supplying the fuel to its customers at the price it pays, it typically asks regulators twice a year to adjust the amount it charges customers. If approved, it would only be the third time in 17 years that customers were actually refunded money -- usually price changes are simply reflected in future bills. Should natural gas prices stay near current lows, it would be easy to see other gas utilities doing similar things in other parts of the country.
Also benefiting from low natural gas prices are companies looking to use liquefied natural gas as an alternative fuel source. With gasoline prices remaining high, some people may consider converting to natural-gas-fueled vehicles. The long-haul trucking industry, with engines developed by Westport Innovations (Nasdaq: WPRT ) , could reduce costs using liquefied natural gas and filling up at the stations provided by Clean Energy Fuels (Nasdaq: CLNE ) . As Clean Energy continues developing natural gas fueling stations throughout the U.S. and Canada, the "natural gas highway" may become a reality and an alternative to gasoline. It is no wonder that Clean Energy has jumped more than 150% from its low in October, and Westport is up nearly 100% over its 52-week low.
Foolish bottom line
Natural gas won't be this cheap forever. While producers consider their options to make it through to an increase, other companies are taking advantage of the low cost by either refunding money to customers or developing new technologies that take advantage of the use as an alternative fuel. Either way, it's worth keeping an eye on, and you can do so by adding these companies to My Watchlist to keep track of the news out of the natural gas industry.
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