The CEO of OAO Gazprom (NASDAQOTH:OGZPY) has warned of a possible withholding of natural gas supplies to Ukraine, citing nearly $2 billion in unpaid bills amid the economic turmoil in the country.
The ongoing diplomatic crisis between Ukraine and Russia, along with Gazprom's status as an enormous Russian company, have made this billing dispute more critical. Several U.S. officials, including House Speaker John Boehner, are pushing for the U.S. to increase natural gas exports to blunt the influence of Gazprom.
A long, winding road to market
Getting U.S. natural gas on the international market has been a major struggle for producers for years. The Department of Energy has to approve every export, and the White House downplayed the chances of any major move, saying they don't see exports having much impact.
As a practical matter, that's probably true. Ukraine's non-payment is a bigger issue than anything, and U.S. producers aren't going to be any more willing to give them free gas than Gazprom is. Still, there's a silver lining to all of this.
Gas export complexities aren't a brand new problem, but they're something that has rarely gotten any political attention. The Ukraine situation may be just the excuse needed to get some much-needed attention for this problem, and even if the administration is unwilling to change policies now, with upcoming elections there could be a shift toward more action on freeing the market.
With a lot of excess production available, the domestic price of natural gas is not expected to see a major impact from the exports. Prices are higher overseas, however, and having access to those markets at all could be a windfall for major producers, who can more easily grab some of that market share in Europe and Asia.
The biggest potential winner is Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK), the largest gas-focused producer in the U.S. The company is trading at a modest price right now with plenty of room to run, though with a current ratio of only 0.66 and a lot of debt there is more risk there than most.
Canadian-based Encana (NYSE:ECA) is a somewhat safer choice, though it is also higher priced. It is also growing somewhat slower than the industry average, so it's tough to consider it a bargain at these prices.
The safest by far, in my opinion, is Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE:APC), which has been putting a lot of money into expanding its natural gas business in recent years. The company has higher margins than the other two producers mentioned, and it has the lucrative oil business to fall back on if the natural gas boom doesn't materialize. It stands as a responsibly priced company that is growing natural gas production at just the right time.
And then there's Gazprom
After looking at those figures, this is another excellent time to look at the numbers on Gazprom itself, which dropped with the rest of the Russian stock market on the Ukraine crisis, and is trading at a criminally low price.
While the other companies are looking at P/Es in the teens, Gazprom's P/E is hovering around 2, and trading at roughly a quarter of its book value. The company has much higher margins than other natural gas-centric plays, and is a market leader.
Rather, Gazprom is the market leader, by far the largest natural gas company in the world. The company sees ten times the revenue of Chesapeake, and despite the panic selling over Ukraine, the company is irreplaceable to Europe, and that's true no matter how quickly the U.S. majors can start getting more exports to market.