With the country awash in natural gas inventory, you'd suspect that companies servicing the drilling industry would be doing well, but Depression-level pricing has crushed everyone, and water treatment specialist Heckmann (NASDAQOTH:NESC) has not been immune. Shares are down 13% over the past 12 months, and though they've jumped well above the lows they hit last fall, they remain symptomatic of the industry as a whole.
According to the Energy Information Administration, natural gas prices ticked up $0.08 to $3.57 per million Btus last week, a tight range that it hasn't been able to shake off, but with inventories remaining above the historical five-year average -- even with the number of rigs in service dropping 39% from a year ago -- there doesn't appear to be a catalyst for a breakout anytime soon.
It's the falling rig count, though, that weighs most heavily on Heckmann. It provides water and fluids used by drillers in the hydraulic fracturing process to access the oil and natural gas trapped therein. Once the fracking process is complete, Heckmann treats the water that is extracted for disposal.
Through the use of fracking and nontraditional drilling methods like horizontal drilling, the industry has produced copious amounts of gas, creating both a boon and bane because the influx has caused prices to crumble. But I'm convinced that will ultimately lead to the greatest economic boom yet, because the low energy cost inputs will drive innovation and development further. While Heckmann should be one of the beneficiaries of the coming natural gas boom, it's really in oil where its future lies.
Following the purchase of Power Fuels last year, Heckmann became an oil-oriented play, with approximately 70% of its focus in the oil shales and liquids market and just 30% in the natural gas shale. Power Fuels is centered almost entirely in the Bakken oil play, and the goal really is to become an industry giant, a one-stop shop for environmental services.
That could be seen in its purchase of Thermo Fluids last year, what ended up becoming Heckmann's fluids management division. It was the first real diversification away from its core gas services business and indicated a trend that it would follow with Power Fuels. The liquids market will be a driving force for the company, and it could be exports that lead the way.
Cheniere Energy (NYSEMKT:LNG) is particularly poised to reap the rewards there, as it owns exclusive approval rights to export LNG supplies to other countries. Its Sabine Pass liquefaction facility in Louisiana has the capacity for 16.9 billion cubic feet of storage, and deliveries are expected to begin as early as 2018. French energy specialist Total has already agreed to buy $6.3 billion worth of LNG from Cheniere over a 20-year period.
It helps explain why drillers such as Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK) and SandRidge Energy (UNKNOWN:SD.DL) have largely abandoned gas drilling for the more lucrative oil and liquids markets. Indeed, SandRidge hardly even mentions gas on its website anymore, focusing instead on the opportunities oil represents.
Bakken not rockin' so much
In its fourth-quarter earnings report released the other day, Heckmann said both the Bakken and Haynesville shale regions continue to experience declining activity levels, though the Bakken did better than expected even though capex spending in the back half of the year was restrained because of the greater efficiencies that drillers were experiencing.
But the weak pricing environment still forced Heckmann to reduce its costs in the Haynesville region, though the Marcellus, Utica, and Eagle Ford shale areas seem to be picking up. Heckmann says it will refocus much of its attention to those regions.
Eating your own cooking
Between rising oil prices and the potential for continued production of gas, Heckmann believes conditions are such that 2013 is shaping up to be a very good year. There may be an opportunity as well to expand its reclamation service, as new regulations have gone into effect preventing use of reserve pits for oil disposal. Skimming oil from sand, mud, and other places not usually thought of could become a very lucrative niche business in a few years.
Chesapeake represented 25% of Heckmann's revenues in 2011, and the driller has indicated that both the Utica and Marcellus shales -- where the water-treatment specialist is seeing its greatest growth -- will see even more production there this year.
Having transitioned from a gas-centric business to an oil-centric one like its customers, I find Heckmann to be a heckuva investment opportunity, though it may require some patience before investors realize the biggest profit.
Fool contributor Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Total, owns shares of Apache and Heckmann, and has options on Heckmann. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.