3 Strengths to Drive Enerplus Corp

Development of U.S. and Canadian energy reserves has changed the international energy market. That does not mean a random investment in an energy producing company guarantees profits or steady income. Examining a company's various assets, financial performance, and competitors will help prevent disappointments, even in a seemingly "safe" business as oil or natural gas production.

Enerplus  (NYSE: ERF  ) offers investors a diversified energy company -- diversified in type of energy produced and where the energy is produced. The stock has done well over the past year, rising from around $13 a share to just over $20 a share today. Can Enerplus' diversity and other strengths deliver these kinds of returns going forward?

Oil and gas from both sides of the border
Perhaps the single biggest asset Enerplus brings to the table is a diversity of energy production and a diversity of asset plays. The company produces crude oil from both the U.S. Bakken and a variety of plays in western Canada. This allows Enerplus to sell light sweet oil from the Bakken and heavier crude from Canada. Given the demand for both grades of oil from U.S. oil refineries, this gives Enerplus some flexibility regarding its customer base.

Natural gas production comes from the Marcellus play in Pennsylvania and from assets in Canada. The Marcellus gas feeds the New England and U.S. East Coast market, and in time, could well be exported. The Canadian gas has a promising future in the Asian export market. The Canadian government recently approved four additional liquefied natural gas export licenses, and natural gas produced from Enerplus' Duvernay and Wilrich plays should find its way to Japan or China in a few years' time.

This diversity protects Enerplus from difficulties experienced by Penn West Petroleum (NYSE: PWE  ) . Penn West has bet heavily on its Cardium and Viking oil plays, which are hampered by limited takeaway capacity. Not being able to move oil not only limits the price received, but also aggravates Penn West's debt situation. Producing oil solely in a chokepoint location has likely contributed to PennWest's stock declining from a 52-week high of $12.80 a share to a current price of about $8.30 a share.

One common feature of its holdings
Further helping Enerplus is the quality of its holdings. The Marcellus shale boasts some of the cheapest natural gas production costs in the U.S. Enerplus' Fort Berthold assets have witnessed a 340% increase in production since 2011. With more drilling at higher density, look for 2014 production to continue climbing. Even better, the company reports reserves are growing at a comparable rate.

Its Canadian assets are not to be sneezed at. The oil assets are in low decline and should see a 10% increase in production in 2014. Driving this production are efforts to improve the recovery of established wells as well as drilling for new deposits. The natural gas assets produce almost as much as the Marcellus assets, with the added benefit of both containing natural gas liquids and continually falling drilling costs. 

Takeaway advantage
As mentioned earlier, Penn West faces a problem with getting oil to a refinery. And it is hardly alone in this regard. Natural gas exports from Canada went almost entirely to the U.S. in the past. Today, Canadian natural gas companies pin their hopes on exports, with the earliest possible start date being in 2020. Since roughly 50% of its oil and gas production is in the U.S., Enerplus avoids at least some of these takeaway problems. The company claims no bottlenecks for its Bakken oil. Expansion of several pipelines serving the Marcellus gas play will minimize problems there.

To be sure, improved midstream service to its Canadian assets would benefit Enerplus. The recent approval of more liquefied natural gas exports will require expansion of pipelines to the Canadian Pacific coast. And those pipelines face some significant opposition. Similarly, oil pipelines are facing scrutiny even as there is need for Canada's heavier oil in U.S. Gulf refineries.

Pipeline companies like Enbridge Energy Partners (NYSE: EEP  ) feel not only resistance to their pipelines, but also competition from railroads. While pipelines are generally regarded as the least expensive way to deliver oil, rail offers immediate and flexible service. In fact, the president of Enbridge recently stated that rail has gained market share that will not be returning to pipelines anytime soon

While Enbridge is moving ahead with its Sandpiper pipeline, that will take heavy Canadian oil to the Pacific coast, lining up customers for that pipeline is proving difficult given rail's competition. For example, during the 2014 CIBC Energy Conference, Enerplus President Dundas indicated roughly half of Enerplus' oil is shipped by rail, the rest by pipeline, but rail is preferred. 

Final Foolish thoughts 
Diversification protects investors from a significant decline in their portfolio should one holding perform poorly. Enerplus seems to pursue a similar strategy in its oil and natural gas holdings. The combination of diversified and growing production, with the means to get it to market, bodes well for Enerplus investors.

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