How Marathon Plans to Win in the Utica Shale

Recently I wrote an article on why I think this could be the year that the Utica Shale breaks out on the energy scene. I see two reasons to be optimistic: $7 billion of infrastructure projects are coming online and producers are beginning to hit the sweet spot. A reader asked if Marathon Petroleum (NYSE: MPC  ) , which is headquartered in the heart of the play, might be a big beneficiary of its growth. With that context, let's break down the company's plans to for the play.

Midstream opportunities
Marathon has packaged a portion of its midstream assets into an MLP and took it public last year. The new company, MPLX (NYSE: MPLX  ) is the vehicle that will be driving the most midstream growth. That growth can come from drop-down opportunities from Marathon or it can pursue third-party acquisitions as well as organic growth projects. As far as the Utica goes, right now MLPX is still evaluating its opportunities to grow. 

Marathon on the other hand has two projects dedicated to the Utica. Last year, it completed a new truck rack capable of unloading 12,000 barrels of oil per day at its Canton Refinery in Ohio. More recently it signed a joint venture to create 24,000 barrels of oil per day in truck unloading capacity and a terminal capable of loading 50,000 barrels of oil per day on barges at its Wellsville, Ohio, terminal. Those projects are key projects for its refining assets.

The other thing to keep in mind is that a lot of the growth in the Utica is focused on wet gas. Companies with midstream assets in the Utica, like Dominion  (NYSE: D  ) and MarkWest  (UNKNOWN: MWE.DL  ) , are busy building wet-gas-gathering systems, pipelines, and processing facilities. Beyond that and more core to Marathon's business, is the potential for oil gathering. That's one area that Dominion's Utica JV Blue Racer Midstream noted that it plans to pursue, and I think it is a potential growth area for Marathon as well. It's also possible that Marathon or MPLX might follow the pattern of Dominion and MarkWest, which is to form a joint venture of its Utica assets to spur growth.

Marathon has two refineries that will benefit most directly from the Utica Shale in the near term. The Canton Refinery is already processing crude oil from the Utica after the truck-unloading facility was completed. The company can expand it up to 24,000 barrels of oil per day, which means nearly a third of the roughly 80,000 barrel per day refinery could be locally sourced crude oil. 

Meanwhile its Catlettsburg Refinery in Kentucky will be the beneficiary of crude from those barges coming from the Wellsville terminal. This is a much larger refinery at 233,000 barrels of oil per day, so its ability to take Wellsville crude will really help its profit margins. That's the key to this whole equation, the ability to process cheaper U.S. sourced crude oil as it is such a game changer for refining profits. Not only can it cut out much more expensive Brent-priced crude, but in the case of these two refineries, it's cutting out a huge chunk of the transportation costs. That's great for margins and just one of the many positives for investors.

My Foolish take
We're still in the very early innings of the Utica's development. Marathon, with two refineries near the heart of the play and the potential for midstream growth will be a big beneficiary of its development. It's Utica potential certainly makes this company one to watch.

It's easy to forget the necessity of midstream operators that seamlessly transport oil and gas throughout the United States. Kinder Morgan is one of these operators, and one that investors should commit to memory due to its sheer size – it's the third-largest energy company in the U.S. – not to mention its enormous potential for profits. In The Motley Fool's new premium research report on Kinder Morgan, our top energy analyst breaks down the company's growing opportunity, as well as the risks to watch out for, in order to uncover whether it's a buy or a sell. To determine whether this dividend giant is right for your portfolio, simply click here now to claim your copy of this invaluable investor's resource.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 10, 2013, at 8:02 PM, prginww wrote:

    Thanks, Matt, for the follow-up. It sounds pretty encouraging for MPC.

    This evening my husband and I went out to dinner at a restaurant on the Ohio River here in Cincinnati and a huge Marathon barge passed by our window going west. My husband told me he thought this barge was from the Cattlesburg refinery and that MPC/MPLX had 15 pusher boats and about 180 barges, so it appears MPC/MPLX may be already transporting product out of the Utica.

    Then we drove home past a Kinder Morgan pipeline hub facility that had some construction vehicles on the property. Both a good sign, and so I think things are beginning to happen here in Ohio.

    Although we wondered---my husband, who is peripherally involved in the energy industry, mentioned that fracking issues were still a question with many landholders, citizen groups and governments in drilling regions, and he wondered how drillers in the Utica are dealing with the water disposal now, etc. etc. I imagine those kinds of issues would be a major hindrance to increasing activity in the area if they are not already resolved...? Any thoughts?

    And my last question--I promise--I came across this nice little mid-stream company called Crosstex Energy (XTXI) that acquired a trucking, barge terminal and pipeline interest here in central Ohio, and I wonder if you know anything about its prospects?

    Thx. Jay

    I have shares in MPC, MPLX, KMI and XTXI

  • Report this Comment On March 13, 2013, at 7:31 PM, prginww wrote:

    RE: your water issues - check out Heckmann. They are providing the solutions to that problem.

    I'll take a look at XTXI I've never heard of it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.


  • Report this Comment On May 18, 2014, at 8:13 PM, prginww wrote:

    Ahh, Matt and PMFPennywise:

    Great write-up/comments!

    I didn't know Marathon was working the Utica/Pt. Pleasant play at all even though they've had an Ohio presence forever (Findley & Canton). I know they're active in the Bakken, Eagle Ford and Alberta, but not so much in Ohio so it was encouraging to learn that they're pursuing midstream activities in Ohio such as at the multi-modal facility in Wellesville. Wellesville activities seem to be shaping up very nicely. Good for those really great folks!

    When I'm on the Ohio River, I sometimes spot a Marathon barge/train but I've never seen one as large as the one Pennywise described. I wonder what they're carrying: methane, ethane, propane, butane or what??? And I wonder about the ultimate destination: Kentucky or the Gulf Coast?

    Tom Pendergast

    Newark, OH

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