Recently I wrote an article on why I think this could be the year that the Utica Shale breaks out on the energy scene. I see two reasons to be optimistic: $7 billion of infrastructure projects are coming online and producers are beginning to hit the sweet spot. A reader asked if Marathon Petroleum (NYSE:MPC), which is headquartered in the heart of the play, might be a big beneficiary of its growth. With that context, let's break down the company's plans to for the play.
Marathon has packaged a portion of its midstream assets into an MLP and took it public last year. The new company, MPLX (NYSE:MPLX) is the vehicle that will be driving the most midstream growth. That growth can come from drop-down opportunities from Marathon or it can pursue third-party acquisitions as well as organic growth projects. As far as the Utica goes, right now MLPX is still evaluating its opportunities to grow.
Marathon on the other hand has two projects dedicated to the Utica. Last year, it completed a new truck rack capable of unloading 12,000 barrels of oil per day at its Canton Refinery in Ohio. More recently it signed a joint venture to create 24,000 barrels of oil per day in truck unloading capacity and a terminal capable of loading 50,000 barrels of oil per day on barges at its Wellsville, Ohio, terminal. Those projects are key projects for its refining assets.
The other thing to keep in mind is that a lot of the growth in the Utica is focused on wet gas. Companies with midstream assets in the Utica, like Dominion (NYSE:D) and MarkWest (NYSE: MWE), are busy building wet-gas-gathering systems, pipelines, and processing facilities. Beyond that and more core to Marathon's business, is the potential for oil gathering. That's one area that Dominion's Utica JV Blue Racer Midstream noted that it plans to pursue, and I think it is a potential growth area for Marathon as well. It's also possible that Marathon or MPLX might follow the pattern of Dominion and MarkWest, which is to form a joint venture of its Utica assets to spur growth.
Marathon has two refineries that will benefit most directly from the Utica Shale in the near term. The Canton Refinery is already processing crude oil from the Utica after the truck-unloading facility was completed. The company can expand it up to 24,000 barrels of oil per day, which means nearly a third of the roughly 80,000 barrel per day refinery could be locally sourced crude oil.
Meanwhile its Catlettsburg Refinery in Kentucky will be the beneficiary of crude from those barges coming from the Wellsville terminal. This is a much larger refinery at 233,000 barrels of oil per day, so its ability to take Wellsville crude will really help its profit margins. That's the key to this whole equation, the ability to process cheaper U.S. sourced crude oil as it is such a game changer for refining profits. Not only can it cut out much more expensive Brent-priced crude, but in the case of these two refineries, it's cutting out a huge chunk of the transportation costs. That's great for margins and just one of the many positives for investors.
My Foolish take
We're still in the very early innings of the Utica's development. Marathon, with two refineries near the heart of the play and the potential for midstream growth will be a big beneficiary of its development. It's Utica potential certainly makes this company one to watch.