Japan’s Insatiable Appetite for Natural Gas Is Key to Energy Stocks’ Future

There's one word that describes why companies with large natural gas reserves are a good buy right now: Japan. 

The Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) increased its purchases of liquid natural gas (LNG) by 7% in January. TEPCO, which supplies electricity to Tokyo, will buy 2.3 million tons (mt) of LNG in January. The company bought 2.2 mt of LNG in December.

TEPCO needs that natural gas after shutting down all of its nuclear reactors because of the Fukushima catastrophe. All 50 of Japan's reactors are currently shut down, and they'll probably stay shut in the face of political pressure.

Japan needs natural gas
The country is turning to natural gas to fill the void. Even Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to negotiate deals to buy more natural gas from nations like Mozambique. Abe is reportedly involved in negotiations for a $20 billion deal to build natural gas export facilities there.

Japan obviously needs natural gas and is willing to pay for it. The country will need more LNG in the near future because its rate of economic growth is up and its stock market is booming. If the Japanese want the good times to continue, they're going to need natural gas.

Japan is now the world's largest importer of natural gas, and that demand is poised to grow. In addition to Mozambique, Abe was in Canada in September trying to negotiate to buy—you guessed it—more LNG.

Kitmat is the key to profiting from Japanese LNG demand
Naturally, investors will be wondering how to profit from this situation. Well, there are two publicly traded energy companies in excellent position to cash in on the Japanese LNG market right now: Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) and Apache Corporation (NYSE: APA  ) .

These two companies are partners in what is known as the Kitmat LNG Project in British Columbia. If you haven't heard of it, Kitmat is a facility for the export of LNG on Canada's Pacific Coast. Best of all, Kitmat, unlike the facilities in Mozambique, is under construction right now. When it starts pumping, Kitmat will be able to export five million mt of LNG a year.

The gas will initially come from Apache's Horn River Basin and Liard Fields in British Columbia. The Horn River Basin could contain up to 424 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. There are also plans for a pipeline to bring in even more natural gas from Alberta. The Liard Basin contains an estimated 48 tcf of natural gas.

The obvious market for the Kitmat natural gas is Japan. Kitmat is closer to Japan than Mozambique, and it is located on an ice-free deepwater harbor, which means natural gas can be shipped year-round. LNG can even be shipped from Kitmat during the winter when LNG demand is highest in Japan.

Kitmat will be first of at least four natural gas export facilities in British Columbia. The other facilities are not expected to open until after 2020. That means Chevron and Apache will have a virtual monopoly for the first few years.

U.S. gas exports on the horizon
There will eventually be some serious competition, though. Barclays Commodities research estimates that the U.S. will become a net exporter of natural gas by June 2016. That estimate is ahead of the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), which estimates that the U.S. will become a gas exporter in 2018.

Obviously Japan will be one of the main markets for U.S. natural gas. All of those gas shipments will probably mean falling prices that could eat into the bottom line of companies like Apache. The Kitmat project cost $15 billion, according to Bloomberg. Oversupply leading to intense competition could make it hard for gas producers to maintain revenues.

Japan's growing demand for LNG makes both Chevron and Apache good long-term energy plays right now. As long as the Japanese economy keeps growing, so will the market for natural gas. 

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