General Electric: Profiting From Energy's Technology Boom

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It's certain that more than a few Fools are still tweaking their investment portfolios for 2014. If you fall into that category and you happen to be an energy aficionado, let me suggest an approach that's likely to stand you in good stead as the year progresses.

The energy industry has long maintained that it benefits materially from meaningful technological advances. But for my money, that claim has never been more appropriate than has become the case in just the past decade. As such, those companies that can lay claim to participation in developing the widest range of new wrinkles for the discovery and production of oil and gas merit first attention from energy investors.

A technological leader
At or near the top in that category, it seems to me, is General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) . The Connecticut-based behemoth is also involved in a host of significant developments that are benefiting the world's petroleum producers -- in addition to providing an array of products that range from jet engines to railroad locomotives to appliances and on to sophisticated health-care equipment.

You likely recognize, for instance, that just a few decades ago, offshore oil and gas production was effectively limited to water depths of less than 1,000 feet and frequently stopped at a few hundred feet of water. Today, however, drilling is occurring in up to 10,000 feet of water in such venues as the Gulf of Mexico (which had been assumed to be a has-been play until the industry began wading into far greater depths), Brazil, and West Africa.

Awfully good deep down
That phenomenon has given rise to a nearly exponential increase in the application and importance of subsea production and processing, an area in which GE excels. Subsea redirects many of the functions heretofore performed at the surface of the well site to the sea floor. The change vastly reduces the number of expensive platforms needed to obtain production from a group of wells and minimizes the time and costs involved in the separation of water, sand, and other contaminants from produced hydrocarbons.

Largely for those reasons, the total of $25 billion that was spent on subsea equipment and expertise in 2011 is expected to explode to as much as $130 billion in little more than the next five years. GE, which manufactures an array of subsea-related equipment, is among those companies best positioned to benefit most from that surge.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also note that both oil-field services giant Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB  ) and Cameron International (NYSE: CAM  ) are major players in subsea expansion. Indeed, just last summer the two companies formed a joint venture to provide products and services to operators involved in subsea production. The unit, OneSubsea is 60% owned by Cameron, with the remainder part of Schlumberger's vast repertoire.

One cool product
In the nascent area of U.S.-based liquefied natural gas production, General Electric is also a leader. With the first shipments of LNG expected to leave our country in the next couple of years, GE is in the middle of the process, including having unveiled an "LNG in a Box" last spring. Unlike the huge facilities typically associated with the cooling of gas to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit to induce liquefaction, GE's mini units are small-scale, plug and play, and redeployable.

As my Foolish colleague Reuben Brewer told you last month, GE is also partnering with Clean Energy Fuels in the fostering of natural gas as a transportation fuel, initially for use in over-the-road trucks. The above-mentioned GE small LNG units will serve Clean Energy's fueling stations. In my rarely tentative opinion, given what has become a surfeit of gas in our country, its use in powering many of our nations trucks (and automobiles) can't come too soon.

The conglomerate model has been generally frowned upon during the past few decades as a way to structure industrial corporations. In GE's case, however, it works nicely. As a member of management stated just last month during the company's annual investor conference, "We drive a lot of synergy across the company in technology." For instance, some of the ceramic composites developed for use in aviation have found their way into the oil and gas business. Ditto the diagnostics and sensors that originated in the health-care business.

I also view it as a distinct positive that the company has decided to divest its North American retail finance arm, while also pursuing a number of cost-cutting approaches. The result will be easier attainment of its targeted 70% industrial and 30% finance mix.

Foolish takeaway
There is a cadre of seers prophesying declining crude prices during 2014 (along with another group that sees oil prices rising). As such, GE's wide-ranging industrial activities seemingly stand to provide investors with a degree of protection from the sort of fluctuations that have traditionally beset global oil supply and demand. Beyond that, however, I'm especially drawn to General Electric precisely because of its energy technology leadership.

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David Smith

A longtime securities analyst and multiple-term member of The Wall Street Journal's All-Star Research team, Dave specializes in energy and natural resources.

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