2 Top Picks for LNG Transportation in 2014

The LNG market is more dynamic than ever. Even with strong forces of demand and pockets of oversupply, there are two companies that have found a niche in the growing LNG market.

Apr 2, 2014 at 9:26AM

Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, producing less pollutants than coal or oil. When natural gas is cooled to -259 degrees Fahrenheit, in a process called liquefaction, it becomes LNG -- a clear, odorless, colorless liquid. It also weighs less than water so it floats when spilled. Perhaps the most salient attribute of LNG is that it's 1/600 the volume of natural gas in its gaseous state. It is this final detail that makes it so ideal for transport and economical for trade.

While natural gas for export is abundant, the liquefaction process requires expensive equipment. Despite concerns over limited addition in liquefaction capacity in the short term, most analysts remain positive on the industry in the long-term. The Ukraine will certainly increase the degree of exports flowing out of the U.S., and while the liquefaction of America's natural gas is highly political, the energy implications of a standoff with Moscow provide ample cover. Additionally, as more liquefaction projects come on-line the demand for LNG transportation will continue to rise. 

Japan is the largest importer of LNG as a consequence of reactor meltdowns at the Fukishima facility in 2011 -- this event catalyzed a movement toward LNG. According to Reuters, Japan's top shippers plan to order 90 new liquefaction natural-gas tankers worth $17.6 billion by 2020 "as they gear up to transport rising volumes of super chilled fuel from North America to Australia." To be clear, liquefaction refers to the storage of LNG, while regasification refers to the usage of LNG, which is to say Japan's top shippers are focused on the supply and storage of LNG. Still, we don't know much about the size of the vessels ordered, but larger tankers are required in order to carry liquefaction equipment.

According to an article in the Maritime Connector, 67 LNG carriers were ordered in 2013, "the third highest annual total for such ships." The article also discusses the diversity in size or function:

The total comprised 42 conventional-size LNG carriers, eight small-size vessels, six floating storage and regasification units (FSRUs) and an LNG bunkering tanker, the world's first such ship.
StealthGas (NASDAQ:GASS) is creating a niche in the industry as an LNG/LPG global leader in Handysize, or the small-size vessels. There's a limited number of these vessels available on the market today and StealthGas is poised to be one of the few with the ability to meet demand. This will be especially important for transport of LNG/LPG from large floating LNG (FLNG) vessels. FLNGs are generally large vessels, like the Prelude, which is an FLNG requisitioned by Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-B) that weighs over 200,000 tonnes -- according to Shell's website, "[I]t is the largest hull ever sent to sea." See below for a video on Prelude provided by Royal Dutch Shell on its website:
These large vessels carry liquefaction equipment that can be used to liquefy and store LNG at places in the middle of the ocean that were previously too difficult to pipeline from a land-based operation. Prelude can store up to 220,000 cubic meters of LNG and 90,000 cubic meters of LPG. For comparison, that's equivalent to approximately 175 Olympic-size swimming pools. 
Another company with a large percentage of Handysize vessels is Navigator Gas (NYSE:NVGS). Recently IPOing at $19.00, the company has little coverage. In November, Imperial Capital initiated an outperform rating, and in December Stifel initiated coverage with a buy. Even though the company had a fleet utilization rate of 92.9% for 2013 compared to 99.5% for 2012, operating income shot up 30%, reflecting an increase in rates/demand. Here's an excerpt from the most recent Q4 earnings release:
During the fourth quarter of 2013, the average time charter equivalent rate across the entire fleet, including our fully refrigerated vessels was approximately $830,500 per calendar month ($27,300 per day), compared to $798,230 per calendar month ($26,243 per day) for the comparable period in 2012.
 Navigator has 24 Handysize vessels and an additional 10 vessels on order.
The LNG market is growing and the size of the ships available to transport is growing as well, but who will transport from the FLNGs to the terminals across the world that need LNG? Since smaller vessels make up less of the overall fleet, and there were fewer on order in 2013, both StealthGas and Navigator are in a position to benefit from the increase in export demand.

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