What's the Outlook for LINN Energy in 2013

There is no rest for the weary for upstream oil and natural gas producer LINN Energy (NASDAQ: LINE  ) . On the heels of a very busy 2012, the company is poised for even more in 2013. What should investors expect in the year ahead?

The rewind
Before we drill down into what to expect in the coming year, let's take a quick look at what transpired in 2012. LINN acquired $2.8 billion mature oil and natural gas assets in four separate deals. Two of those deals were for more than a billion dollars, both of which had BP (NYSE: BP  ) on the other end. The company also completed a much smaller deal with Southwestern Energy (NYSE: SWN  ) for $175 million, as well as a joint venture with Anadarko Petroleum  (NYSE: APC  ) for $400 million. 

Of the deals, the Anadarko joint venture is the one to watch. The agreement included all the typical components of a LINN Energy deal. It was immediately cash flow accretive, has a low decline rate and a long reserve life, however, the asset is different in that Anadarko is using enhanced oil recovery in the field which is a new technology for LINN. The experience and knowledge gained can eventually be transferred to LINN's existing asset base, as well as for assets to be acquired.

Capping off its busy 2012 was the company's IPO of LinnCo (NASDAQ: LNCO  ) . Structured as a C-Corp, its only assets will be units of LINN Energy. This deal is very important for LINN going forward as it gives the company another vehicle to access the capital market. That capital market access is the key to the company's ability to get future deals done.

Fast forward
LINN's busy 2012 now has its enterprise value sitting just over $15 billion. For perspective, that puts the company among the top 10 independent exploration and production companies. Don't look for LINN to stop there. According to CEO Mark Ellis, he expects the company to exit 2013 as a $20 billion enterprise value company. That's heady growth for a company that's structured like a slower-growth master limited partnership.

Look for the company to be very active in what it sees as a robust merger and acquisition marketplace for mature production assets. With natural gas prices remaining depressed, look for more bolt-on deals from the company but at larger dollar values than its deal with Southwestern Energy. Also look for LINN to play a larger role in helping cash-strapped drillers fund expensive exploration budgets.

We'll also likely see the company make increasingly bigger deals over the next year with more deals of over a billion dollars likely. It's also very likely that the company acquires a C-Corp at some point in 2013. That's something that CEO Mark Ellis has said that the company is almost at the point where it has the capabilities to successfully pull off. 

More than just deals
While deal-making is the company's bread and butter growth platform, it's not the only way for the company to grow. In addition to its approximately 15,000 gross producing oil and gas well, the company has an inventory of several thousand low risk and liquids-rich development opportunities. Each acquisition the company has made in the past almost always came with additional upside from these future drilling locations.

Take the company's Jonah Field acquisition from BP, not only did it acquire around 750 gross producing wells, but there are around another 650 future drilling locations which will add to production over time. The same can be said for the Hugoton acquisition from BP which not only came with around 2,400 operated wells but nearly 800 future drilling locations and 500 recompletion opportunities.

The upside from organic growth makes LINN different from most of its upstream MLP peers. The company delivered approximately 30% organic production growth in 2011 and is expected to deliver another 20% in organic growth in 2012. This provides investors with additional upside of at least double-digit organic production growth in 2013. As the price of natural gas recovers, it opens up even more organic drilling opportunities.

Cashing in
All of the acquisitions and organic growth opportunities are designed to drive one key metric: distributable cash flow. With every acquisition, the company targets a $0.03 accretion to distributable cash flow per unit for every $100 million spent. That accretion target can also be reached through the drill bit. 

Of course, not all of that accretion per unit gets returned to investors. Natural decline, commodity prices, hedging and capital expenditures all take a cut. However, after four straight quarters of a static distribution, investors are likely getting a raise at some point in 2013.

Foolish bottom line
There's a lot to like at LINN Energy and by extension LinnCo. The next key data point on the company will arrive on Feb. 21st when the company reports its fourth-quarter and full-year results. The company should also give investors some more insights as to what to expect in the year ahead.

I expect big things from the company in the year ahead which is one reason why I named the company my top energy stock from 2013. Stay tuned to Fool.com for continuing covering of this innovative energy company in the year ahead.

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