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This Midstream Player Is Thinking Ahead

As earnings season comes to a close, we are left to process an awful lot of information. The midstream industry has been particularly interesting to watch, given the state of oil and gas production in North America. Its boom time now, but I can't help but wonder which companies will continue to find success when the boom goes bust. Enbridge (NYSE: ENB  ) is one company that stands out in my mind as being incredibly forward thinking. Today I'll look at three areas where Enbridge is taking the long view: safety, renewables, and international operations.

1. Safety
Safety is number one at Enbridge now, so that's where we'll start. Earlier this year, I spent a fair bit of ink covering the fallout from the National Transportation Safety Board's highly critical report of Enbridge's embarrassing failure that led to a devastating oil spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010. The problem wasn't that an Enbridge pipeline leaked, that will happen, but rather that warnings went unheeded, and Enbridge employees seemed at best incredibly unprepared to execute the appropriate response.

But Enbridge's reaction to the spill on a companywide level will serve it well in the future. Since 2011, the company has been conducting arguably the most thorough integrity management program in the industry. It has carried out 4,300 digs to make inspections. Enbridge has gone as far as using medical imaging technology to take a closer look at its buried assets.

More importantly, Enbridge has started up a new control center and made "significant organizational enhancements," a crucial development given that the excessive volume of the Kalamazoo spill can be attributed to employee's ineptitude in the control room.

Only time will tell how effective Enbridge's new commitment to safety and integrity will be, but at the very least the company is finally giving the subject the attention it deserves. It was one of the few companies to spend any significant time on the topic on its earnings call. As citizen opposition to pipeline projects continues to increase, it will never hurt to be best in class in this area.

2. Renewables
It is easy to see the importance for big oil to diversify assets to include renewable energy sources, but big pipe is getting in on the action as well. For example, Kinder Morgan Energy Partners (UNKNOWN: KMP.DL  ) increased volumes of transported biofuels by 22% last quarter. Enbridge has thrown its hat in the ring, and it has a significant renewable presence.

Believe it or not, Enbridge is actually the largest solar power generator, and the second-largest wind power generator, in Canada. The company owns nine wind farms and four solar farms.

Developing renewable assets is important. As CEO Al Monaco noted in the fourth-quarter earnings release: "We see renewable energy playing an important role in our longer-term strategy of developing a more diversified asset base as we move toward a future energy economy with lower reliance on hydrocarbons."

Our energy future will likely include a variety of sources, and it will be important for midstream companies to diversify operations outside of hydrocarbons. Enbridge is proving it can be done now, and profitably.

3. International operations
In the world of North American pipeline companies, an international presence more or less means operations in the U.S. and Canada. TransCanada (NYSE: TRP  ) does a little work in Mexico, and Kinder Morgan (NYSE: KMI  ) has a few connections at the Mexican border, but that's about it.

Enbridge is one of the few midstream players with true international experience; that is, outside of North America. The company has had operating or ownership projects in Spain, Oman, Venezuela, and Colombia. Though those past projects haven't always gone well in the past, and operating with foreign governments is sometimes easier said than done, there are some excellent opportunities out there and Enbridge is looking to develop that presence once again.

On Enbridge's fourth-quarter conference call, Monaco spoke to the company's vision for international development, highlighting opportunities in Australia, Peru, and Colombia as the most likely places where projects will come to fruition. Monaco stressed that Enbridge will not enter into any project just for the sake of international business, but that it has to be the right project for the company :

So if we're talking about, obviously, crude oil or gas pipeline, then we would be a strong player. Colombia is probably one where that fits exactly right, good volume growth profile there for oil. And certainly, we have a good opportunity, in that there's a lack of infrastructure, generally, in terms of connecting that crude supply with markets.

That last comment is significant. We have seen in the U.S. just how important pipelines are to domestic oil markets. A lack of infrastructure can wreak havoc on oil prices. As shale oil production increases worldwide, it will be important -- especially in countries that rely heavily on oil to generate money for government operations -- to have sufficient takeaway capacity. That reality provides an excellent opportunity for Enbridge to do business abroad.

Foolish takeaway
I have been very critical of Enbridge in the past, but it is hard to ignore the progress the company is making, particularly with its safety and integrity program, and how it is setting itself up for success in the years to come.

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  • Report this Comment On February 26, 2013, at 8:28 AM, jinsko wrote:

    Wow, what a rosy assessment of Enbridge's new-found commitment to safety. Of course, you fail to mention that their integrity management program was actually mandated by PHMSA. Also, nobody knows any real details about their so-called "organizational enhancements," which may or may not do any real good since as the NTSB report showed, the problem wasn't with their control-room procedures; the problem was a culture that routinely ignored its own rules and procedures-- not so easy to change. Oh, and the reason Enbridge is one of the few companies talking about safety on their earnings call? Gee, do you think it has anything to do with the fact that they are the pipeline company whose reputation has been most damaged-- by dumping a million gallons of oil into a U.S. river? That's hardly a reason to praise them.


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