Pipeline giant Energy Transfer (ET -1.66%) got another dose of bad news this week. A U.S. district court judge ordered the company to temporarily shut down and drain its Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) by August 5th, pending the outcome of an environmental review. The news sent shares of Energy Transfer and the pipeline's other investors into a tailspin.

The news was a big blow for the company, one of several it has encountered this year. These issues have pushed the MLP's unit price down roughly 50%, driving its dividend yield to its current level above 18%. A payout that high is usually a warning sign that a cut is right around the corner. The probability of that outcome has certainly increased following the shutdown of DAPL.

A $20 bill about to be cut by scissors.

Image source: Getty Images.

A big blow in many ways

Energy Transfer currently owns a 36.37% stake in the Bakken Pipeline system, which includes the 1,172-mile Dakota Access line that transports oil from North Dakota to Illinois and the 675-mile ETCO pipeline that ships oil from Illinois to Texas. The system started commercial service in June of 2017, following a series of delays due to the controversies surrounding DAPL's route. The system has the capacity to transport 570,000 barrels of oil per day (BPD), though Energy Transfer has been seeking support to expand it up to 1.1 million BPD. 

Energy Transfer and its fellow owners have been generating a steady stream of cash flow since the system started three years ago. That income stream will dry up -- at least temporarily -- as the DAPL undergoes its environmental review. In addition to that cash flow hit, Energy Transfer and its partners will need to spend more money on their legal defense and any related costs. The companies have already filed a motion to stay in hopes that oil will continue to flow through the pipeline. 

On top of that, the partners might need to inject equity into their venture because of a backstop agreement with lenders following a $2.5 billion bond offering last year. Refining giant Phillips 66 (PSX -1.76%), which owns a 25% stake through its MLP Phillips 66 Partners (PSXP), disclosed that it might need to contribute as much as $631 million in equity as a result of the pipeline's shutdown. Given Energy Transfer's larger stake, it might need to kick in even more money. When combined with the lost income and additional legal fees, that cash payment could significantly impact Energy Transfer's ability to maintain its current dividend level. 

Another setback in a trying year

The court's ruling on DAPL is just the latest in a series of blows to Energy Transfer's earnings. The company entered the year under some pressure due to the roll off of legacy pipeline contracts, and some margin compression as a result of more competitive market conditions. Because of those issues, the company initially expected that it would generate between $11 billion and $11.4 billion of EBITDA this year, even with 2019's total at the midpoint. Unfortunately, market conditions went from bad to worse this year due to crashing crude prices. That led Energy Transfer to revise its guidance, with it now only expecting to generate between $10.6 billion and $10.8 billion of EBITDA.

However, further legal setbacks could cause earnings to come in even lower. The company is facing lost revenue while DAPL is offline and the potential loss of a contract with Chesapeake Energy, which recently filed for bankruptcy. Chesapeake wants the court to void several pipeline contracts, including a $293 million agreement on Energy Transfer's Tiger Pipeline. 

The pressure on Energy Transfer's cash flow is a concern because the company expects to invest $3.6 billion on additional expansion projects this year. Given its current dividend level, it's on track to outspend cash flow this year, leaving it with a gap. The company currently plans to fund the difference with new debt. However, it might have to rethink that plan if it needs to infuse equity into DAPL, since it can't risk losing its investment-grade credit rating.

On a positive note, Energy Transfer believes it will start producing positive cash flow in 2021 after paying its dividend and funding capital expenses. However, that assumes it doesn't experience long-term cash flow losses from DAPL or its contract with Chesapeake Energy.

Energy Transfer's high-yielding dividend is on shaky ground

The court-ordered shutdown of DAPL could have a sizable impact on Energy Transfer. The company will lose the income the pipeline generated and might also need to make a sizable equity contribution. Add that to all its other issues, and there's an increased risk that it might need to reduce its dividend so that it doesn't put its balance sheet in jeopardy.