For the most part, natural gas is a domestic market in the Unites States. In fact, until a few years ago, the country was expected to be a net importer of the fuel. That's changed, and high natural gas prices around the world are enticing investors to build export facilities. The state of Alaska is partnering up with some big industry players, which could give this liquefied natural gas facility (LNG) the political support it needs to get done—fast.
One of the natural gas facilities closest to opening for business is Cheniere Energy Partners' (NYSEMKT:CQP) Sabine Pass terminal. When it was first envisioned, however, it was seen as a port for accepting liquefied natural gas from other countries. The domestic natural gas boom quickly changed that and led Cheniere to reverse course.
Although there has been public discussion over limiting the export of natural gas, Cheniere's Sabine Pass looks like it will be among the first to send U.S. natural gas overseas. And while it's losing money as it completes the terminal, the partnership already has customers lined up. The long path Cheniere has traveled to get this port completed, however, shows just how beneficial it would be to have a big backer like a U.S. state behind a project.
So when ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), BP (NYSE:BP), ConocoPhillips, and TransCanada (NYSE:TRP) snagged nearly $6 billion from Alaska in exchange for a 25% interest in an LNG export facility, it was a real boost to the project's prospects. In fact, Joe Balash, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, told Bloomberg that the deal, if approved by the state's legislature, would give the terminal a "good shot" at moving forward. That's probably the understatement of the day.
This is great news for ExxonMobil, which bet heavily on the U.S. natural gas business when it bought XTO energy for $40 billion at the turn of the decade. Since that point, however, U.S. natural gas prices have collapsed, leaving CEO Rex Tillerson with little choice but to admit that Exxon was "off a year or two" on its timing. Being able to push natural gas into markets with notably higher prices would help reverse that mistake.
BP, meanwhile, would just like to get its business growing again after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that tarnished its image and forced it to shed key assets to pay legal and other costs. And dealing with Alaska is far safer than some of the company's other efforts, like a partnership with Russia that's left BP with a minority stake in state-controlled Rosneft.
That deal could turn out to be a real winner for BP, but Russia's not exactly known for being kind to outsiders—or insiders. In addition to being a U.S. state, Alaska would love to have natural gas help offset the oil declines it's been experiencing. In other words, BP and Exxon picked up a politically powerful and motivated ally.
TransCanada, meanwhile, is both a pipeline specialist and one of the biggest players in Canada's energy market. Since Alaska is separated from the contiguous 48 states by Canada, it's a good idea to have the company aboard. For TransCanada, making friends with Alaska could also be beneficial in getting its stalled Keystone XL pipeline, which is mired in U.S. political red tape, approved.
In the end, it looks like just about everyone involved in this project could end up a winner if the Alaska legislature approves. Keep an eye on that process, but with the state's oil flow falling it seems like a good bet that everyone's interests are aligned on this one. That said, Exxon or TransCanada are probably better options than BP for getting a piece of the action because of the still lingering issues surrounding BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But if you don't want to wait for this project, take a look at Cheniere—you just won't have Alaska investing along side you.