Ironwood Plant Feature

Image source: TransCanada Corporation.

As an investor, it is imperative to remain dispassionate when considering investment opportunities. TransCanada Corporation (NYSE:TRP), though, made that slightly more difficult when it opted to file a $15 billion lawsuit against the U.S. government. As a tax-paying citizen of a country that is ruled by the people, you've effectively just been sued.

Now that the proverbial dust has settled from this $15 billion bomb, it's worth your time to dig a little deeper into the implications. TransCanada very well might have a $15 billion windfall coming its way, but here's why the outcome is currently inconsequential to the company's three-to-five-year outlook.

The lawsuit

In late June, TransCanada officially filed an arbitration case against the U.S. government for rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline to the tune of $15 billion dollars, which would cover incurred costs as well as opportunity costs. The lawsuit falls under Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which according to the U.S. State Department, was "designed to protect cross-border investors."

The lawsuit claims that the Obama administration rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline for purely political reasons. In its filing, TransCanada writes, "The rejection was symbolic and based merely on the desire to make the U.S. appear strong on climate change, even though the State Department had itself concluded that denial would have no significant impact on the environment."

Regardless of how you feel about environmental issues or the merits of the pipeline, TransCanada does in fact have a case. By rejecting the pipeline on political merits, an argument can be made that the U.S. denied TransCanada equal opportunity to pursue its business after initially giving the company the impression in 2008 that the pipeline would be approved.

How the money could be used

If TransCanada received the money today, it would be a game changer. As of the end of March, the company had almost $36 billion in projects planned for its long-term capital program, and $11 billion in near-term capital spending. The $15 billion at stake in the lawsuit would cover TransCanada's entire near-term capital program, as well as make a dent in its long-term program. This doesn't even consider the fact that part of its long-term projections includes $8 billion for the now cancelled Keystone pipeline.

To look at it another way, the company just closed a major acquisition for the Columbia Pipeline Group. The acquisition provides about 15,000 miles of gas pipelines and gives TransCanada a major foothold in the eastern U.S. The price tag? $13 billion.

Perhaps the most important of TransCanada's future projects is the Energy East pipeline. The pipeline would essentially transport oil from Alberta to eastern Canada. The 1.1 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (BOE/D) is actually larger than the projected Keystone XL pipeline number, which was about 900,000 BOE/D. That price tag? $12 billion.

These are major projects that TransCanada is counting on to bring in future profits, and the cash from the lawsuit would cover one in its entirety while chipping away at the other.

Arbitration

While $15 billion would be nice, here's where it really gets interesting. According to the website of the U.S. State Department, which represents the U.S. in NAFTA Chapter 11 cases, there have been 18 previous cases filed against the U.S. These cases have taken several years to come to a settlement and award. For example, in a case dating back to 2000, Methanex Corporation (NASDAQ:MEOH), a Canadian marketer and distributor of methanol, sued the U.S. for $970 million, claiming it was denied fair and equitable treatment as written under Chapter 11.  In 2005, the case closed and all the claims were dismissed.

Then let's throw in the fact that this is by far the largest NAFTA Chapter 11 suit ever levied against the U.S. government. I'm no lawyer, but as an investor, I would put my money on a very drawn out arbitration.

Looking through the dispassionate lens, the $15 billion would be great for TransCanada. This is by no means a certainty, though, and could take the better part of a decade to come to fruition. Fortunately, the company is already in great shape and making solid moves to strengthen its assets with purchases such as the Columbia Pipeline Group. These investments will drive TransCanada's future -- not the $15 billion bomb it decided to drop on the U.S.

David Lettis has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. 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.