Are you looking for a way to play the continuing boom in the global shipping industry? But you're concerned about volatile shipping rates, eye-watering fuel costs, and increasingly stringent environmental regulations? Don't despair. Cast your eyes no further than Aegean Marine Petroleum Network (NYSE: ANW), a leading purveyor of fueling and logistics services to the maritime industry.

The easiest way to think about Greece-based Aegean Marine is to compare it to your neighborhood gas station. But instead of filling up SUVs, Aegean tops off the tanks of the world's oceangoing fleets.

Aegean operates a fleet of 20 bunkering tankers and three floating oil storage tankers at seven service centers located in places including Singapore and Jamaica, and it recently opened operations in Ghana. Aegean buys its marine fuel from refiners and major oil producers, and delivers it either in port or through the bunkering fleet to dry-bulk carriers, cruise ships, oil tankers, and even coastal ferries.

Boasting competitive advantages in a highly fragmented industry, ranging from a strong balance sheet to its regulatory-compliant fleet of double-hulled tankers, the company is positioned to reap the rewards of a rapidly growing shipping market.

Global shipping market fuels growth
According to the International Union of Marine Insurance (IUMI), the world's shipping fleet grew 18% between 2001 and 2007, while tonnage increased at an even faster rate, racking up a 48% gain over the same period, thanks to the larger size of new vessels.

The IUMI projects that the world's shipping fleet will grow by another 40% by 2012, with an accompanying increase in tonnage. This is huge for Aegean: Bigger ships require more fuel, and the more of them the better.

Pumping out more tankers and service centers
Aegean is set to grow its fleet of tankers over the next two years, as the company has 24 additional bunkering tankers on order for delivery by 2010, as well as three more storage tankers.

On the service center front, the company has been expanding centers in strategic locations around the globe. Management recently said that its continued investment in network and logistics infrastructure has yielded notable increases in volume of fueling sold. The company plans to add two more service centers by 2010, bringing its total to 10.

Competitive Advantages
Aside from players such as World Fuel Services (NYSE: INT) and divisions of larger companies like ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) and BP (NYSE: BP), most of Aegean's competitors are small and poorly capitalized. This high degree of fragmentation works to Aegean's advantage.

First, Aegean is able to pay for much of its fuel needs with cash on the spot market, obtaining a discount from suppliers as opposed to competitors that are forced to use letters of credit. Secondly, when fuel costs are unexpectedly high and Aegean is forced to draw on its credit lines, you can be sure that its competitors are feeling the pinch more, and this allows Aegean to gain market share.

I'd have to say one of Aegean's major advantages is the fact that nearly its entire fleet -- 17 out of 20 bunkering tankers -- is double-hulled. Why is that important? I'm glad you asked.

According to European Union requirements and the International Maritime Organization's MARPOL agreement, all oil bunkering ships must be double-hulled by the end of 2008. Currently, just 16% of the global bunkering fleet is compliant. Since this will force Aegean's competitors to either refit existing ships or build new ones, I can't help but think that some will have no choice but to cease operations.

Smooth sailing
Trading at just 11.5 times 2008 earnings estimates of $2.55, Aegean appears attractively valued, especially considering that analysts project a five-year growth rate of 41%. Offering exposure to a hot shipping industry and international waters, Aegean is a great way to top off your portfolio.

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Fool contributor Will Frankenhoff is enjoying his time writing for The Fool more than playing golf, or reading The Financial Times. He welcomes your feedback. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned above. The Fool has a disclosure policy.