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Shares in pipeline giant Kinder Morgan (NYSE:KMI) have had a stellar year so far in 2016. After finishing up 2015 at $14.92 a share, its stock recently traded hands at $21.47, up nearly 44% year to date through mid-September. While that gain calendar year to date looks great, its shares remain well off of last year's highs. Kinder Morgan's stock price fell substantially near the end of 2015 thanks to a threatened debt downgrade by Moody's and a subsequent dividend cut by the pipeline giant.

Despite the rebound so far this year, Kinder Morgan's share price still has a ways to go before it retests its previous highs. Given the changes the company made to improve its balance sheet and cash coverage in response to that threatened downgrade, it now has more maneuvering room in how it operates. Keep reading to discover four ways Kinder Morgan may be able to use that enhanced maneuverability to help its share price rise.

Potential No. 1: Restored growth prospects

Prior to last year's debt concern, Kinder Morgan had identified over $21 billion in investment opportunities it thought it could explore over the next five years. After the company revamped its strategy because of the potential debt downgrade, that five-year investment pipeline shrunk to around $13.5 billion. The rest of those growth prospects didn't just disappear, but they did become uneconomical when Kinder Morgan had to revamp its financing strategy to protect its balance sheet.

As Kinder Morgan continues its existing expansion plan, both the larger infrastructure and the better cash flows that the expansions bring once they're online could wind up providing the company with new opportunities for further expansion. If so, that will assure that Kinder Morgan's expansion pipeline remains strong, even if the company never returns to its previous debt-fueled expansion strategy.

Potential No. 2: Restored access to the debt market

When Moody's threatened the downgrade of Kinder Morgan's debt, its primary concern was a projected debt to EBITDA ratio of around 5.9, which is above its comfort zone for an investment-grade company. In Moody's most recent review, it projected Kinder Morgan's debt-to-EBITA ratio would drop to about 5.4 by the end of 2017. 

Better debt coverage translates directly to more financial flexibility -- and a restored ability to access the debt market to fund expansion plans. While Kinder Morgan will likely not be as reliant on debt as it was previously, regaining the ability to tap the debt market will help it enhance its potential to expand faster, and thus improve its anticipated future cash flows and fair market value.

Potential No. 3: A return to dividend growth

Kinder Morgan had developed a reputation as a company that paid out a very hefty and growing dividend, one that was barely covered by its operating cash flows. While its dividend cut did reduce the cash shareholders could expect each quarter, it also improved Kinder Morgan's dividend coverage and gives the company far stronger financial flexibility.

It might take until 2018 or so before Kinder Morgan feels comfortable resuming its previous trend of dividend increases. Once it does, though, it will put the company back on the radar screens of investors looking for the potential of increasing income from their investments.

Potential No. 4: Continued growth of energy demand

91% of Kinder Morgan's business is fee-based and driven by either take-or-pay contracts or volume-driven contracts. The company is much more reliant on the amount of energy flowing through its pipelines than it is on the final market price that energy commands. On that front, major energy producers project an increase in energy usage as the world's population grows, and getting that energy from where it's produced to where it's needed is Kinder Morgan's specialty.

In particular, Kinder Morgan stands to benefit as America shifts to lower-cost and cleaner-burning natural gas from oil, particularly when it comes to heavy-duty transportation needs. As the largest natural gas pipeline company in North America, Kinder Morgan is better positioned than any other current pipeline company to profit from that increased demand.

Despite last year's stumble, Kinder Morgan remains a strong business

While Kinder Morgan stumbled near the end of 2015, the steps it took to strengthen its balance sheet and give itself more financial flexibility leave it stronger today than it was this time last year. Demand for its services remains strong and is expected to grow over time. It remains able to continue to expand its operations, despite the slower pace it finds itself on. And with its foundations stronger, investors may be able to once again look forward to increasing dividends in the not-too-distant future.

Whether or not its shares rise in the near term will likely be more a function of the market's daily mood swings than an artifact of a substantial change in Kinder Morgan's fundamentals. Still, with a longer-term perspective in mind, today's Kinder Morgan is a very strong company trading at a reasonable current valuation that I'm willing to continue holding.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.