While natural gas struggles to get up and running on the export side because of regulatory and infrastructure constraints, natural gas liquids (NGLs) are experiencing massive export growth. Enterprise Products Partners (NYSE:EPD) is right in the middle of that opportunity.
You can't export that stuff...
Up until recently, there wasn't any reason to export natural gas because we used everything we had and then some. But things are different now, and gas drillers are looking to get more U.S. oil and gas on the water. The big reason is that U.S. natural gas is trading at disproportionately low prices when compared to key demand centers around the world.
While export terminals are slowly being approved, they take years to develop. And major U.S. gas users like chemical giant Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW) are openly pushing back. Dow Chemical's CEO Andrew Liveris commented after a late 2013 liquefied natural gas export-terminal approval:
The most recent data makes clear that sending large volumes of American natural gas abroad will raise consumer energy prices, discourage manufacturing investment, and impede economic growth and job creation.
That's a very pro-America speech, but for Dow the real issue is margins. The more Dow has to pay for a key feedstock, the less it will be able to make from selling its chemicals. For example, during the company's first-quart conference call, CFO Bill Weideman noted that Dow has been working to control costs to help drive growth and to offset "a $300 million increase of feedstock and energy costs." If more natural gas goes abroad, that cost could keep rising.
A byproduct that's already heading out the door
The interesting thing is that NGLs aren't treated the same as natural gas. NGLs are largely a byproduct of processing natural gas and oil. And, since there's no restrictions on NGLs like propane leaving the domestic market, there's been a boom in exports.
Around 70% of U.S. propane exports go south of the border to Mexico and South America. The rest is split between Europe (about 20%) and Asia (slightly more than 10%). That's actually quite exciting. For example, with Russia annexing Crimea and the political strain that's caused between Europe and one of its largest energy suppliers, it wouldn't be surprising to see more demand for U.S. NGLs. Asia, meanwhile, is growing quickly, and that growth should also heighten demand.
And this is a huge opportunity not just for the United States but specifically for Enterprise Products Partners. Right now, Enterprise handles roughly half of all the propane that's exported to Mexico and the rest of South America. Its share in Europe is about 10% and in Asia just 5%. That means Enterprise has plenty of share to gain in those markets.
Natural gas liquids pipelines and services made up 52% of Enterprise Products Partners' business last year. However, between 2013 and 2016, the partnership is spending 57% of its capital budget in the space. Obviously it smells an opportunity.
Emphasizing how important this business is to Enterprise, in a recent presentation, the lead bullet point for describing growth plans was: "continuing to expand our unparalleled footprint along the entire NGL value chain; continue as the U.S. leader in the rapidly expanding U.S. NGL business."
And Enterprise highlights the value of propane's NGL cousins ethane and naphtha, too, when discussing export opportunities -- so the story isn't all propane, though that's probably the most exciting market right now.
Exporting gas is good, but NGLs might be better
The export of natural gas will slowly happen, much to the chagrin of key users like Dow Chemical. However, NGLs are going abroad today without a fight, making this an opportunity you don't have to wait for. And dominant player Enterprise Products Partners is a great way to get exposure.
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Reuben Brewer has a position in Enterprise Products Partners. The Motley Fool recommends Enterprise Products Partners L.P.. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.