Last week the Energy Department announced that it has conditionally authorized the Freeport LNG project to export natural gas to countries that do not have a free trade agreement with the U.S. This marked the second such authorization, and it also likely paves the way for additional approvals in the future. As we ramp up our export capacity over the next few years I see the following five natural gas stocks as those likely to be the biggest winners.
ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM )
While the nation's top natural gas producer wins either way, it's been a very vocal proponent of increasing natural gas exports. Because of the low price of gas in the U.S., the global energy giant has been letting its natural gas production decline. The company currently has no plans to boost its production even as gas prices have headed higher this year. That being said, increased exports could change the company's plans as Exxon will really benefit from increased natural gas exports.
Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK )
Few companies would benefit to the degree as the second-largest natural gas producer, Chesapeake Energy. While the company has been shifting toward liquids it still produces 4%, on a net basis, of the total natural gas that's produced in the country; it is the largest producer on a gross basis at about 9% of our output. Overall, 76% of the company's total production is natural gas, meaning its stock is highly sensitive to any movement in that commodity's price. Increased exports, which will at least put a floor under the price of natural gas, could provide a big boost to Chesapeake's stock.
Range Resources (NYSE: RRC )
With total resource potential estimated to be between 48 trillion and 68 trillion cubic feet equivalent of natural gas, Range's stockholders will be big beneficiaries of natural gas exports. The company sees 20%-25% of production growth for the next few years; as a low-cost producer that should yield exceptional profits. With a focus on per-share growth, instead of growth at all costs, Range's stock should be a big winner as we increase our exports.
Ultra Petroleum (NASDAQOTH: UPLMQ )
As another low-cost producer, Ultra is using its cost position to focus on profitable growth. The company has cut back its capital program to invest within its cash flow and while it's trimmed a billion dollars off its capital plans for this year, the company can spend more capital as its cash flow increases. Under its current projections the company believes that by 2016 it can grow its production by 42% while its EBITDA doubles. That assumes a minimal rise in natural gas prices; however, increased natural gas exports could increase the price of natural gas above the $4.50 that Ultra is modeling it to be by 2016, meaning that the company could easily exceed these numbers.
Southwestern Energy (NYSE: SWN )
While Southwestern recently doubled down on its Marcellus acreage, the bulk of the company's assets are in the Fayetteville Shale. As the discoverer of the play, the company made the most of its first-mover advantage as it has continued to improve its operations in the play. That has provided the company with a low-cost structure that helps it profit even as gas prices remain weak. Finally, its core Fayetteville position is located in Arkansas and Oklahoma meaning that natural gas produced from the region just needs to take quick trip down a pipeline to the Gulf Coast where it could then be easily exported.
Foolish bottom line
While there are several other natural gas stocks that will benefit from increased exports, these five are should feel the impact of exports first. Exxon and Chesapeake are the nation's top two natural gas producers while Range, Ultra, and Southwestern are among the three lowest-cost producers. That means increased exports, which likely will bump the price of natural gas a little higher, should yield big gains for the stocks of all five companies.
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