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Union Pacific Corporation (NYSE:UNP) is one of the leading railroad companies in the United States. While the company is facing significant headwinds in the coal market, its chemical business has received a boost due to large jump in crude oil shipments. The chemicals segment accounts for around 16% of its overall freight revenues. The shale gas boom has led to an expansion in the U.S. chemicals sector, which has resulted in higher industrial chemicals and plastics shipments.

Going forward, we believe petroleum products' shipments will continue to increase rapidly in 2013, as oil production continues to surpass pipeline capacity. Continued growth in the U.S. chemicals sector due to low natural gas prices will further benefit Union Pacific's chemicals business. During the period from January to March 2, 2013, Union Pacific's chemicals volume grew by 12%, with over 100% growth in crude oil shipments.

In this article, we evaluate the performance of Union Pacific's chemical business in Q4 2012. Also, we discuss the outlook for this business in 2013.

What Was the Performance of the Chemicals Segment in Q4 2012?

In Q4 2012, Union Pacific's chemical revenues grew by 15% annually owing to 14% year-over-year rise in its chemicals volumes. The average revenue per car remained in line with the prior year. The chemicals segment includes various products such as petroleum products, industrial chemicals, plastics, fertilizer and soda ash.

% Contribution in Union Pacific’s Chemicals Carloads (2012)

Annual Volume Growth for Union Pacific in Q4 2012

Petroleum & Other

34%

69%

Industrial Chemicals

23%

8%

Plastics

22%

7%

Fertilizer

11%

(8)%

Soda ash

10%

4%

Reasons for This Performance and Future Outlook

Crude oil shipments drive growth of petroleum products. Union Pacific's petroleum products volumes which account for the highest proportion (34%) of its chemical carloads, grew rapidly by 69% annually in Q4 2012. Significant growth in Union Pacific's crude oil volumes, which rose by 160% annually in Q4 2012, contributed to this strong performance.

According to the Association of American Railroads, crude oil shipments by U.S. railroads more than tripled in 2012 to 233,811 carloads. This resulted in 46% annual rise in crude oil and petroleum products shipments by U.S. railroads in 2012. Significant growth in railroad crude oil shipments is being recorded in areas witnessing heavy growth in oil production and where pipeline infrastructure is not adequate to transport oil.

Going forward, we believe Union Pacific's crude oil shipments will continue to increase significantly in 2013, as oil production continues to exceed pipeline capacity. Union Pacific connects to oil producing areas such as Bakken, Permian and Eagle Ford Shale formations, which is likely to drive its petroleum business. However, the growth rate in 2013 could be affected by difficult year-over-year comparisons. Union Pacific's crude oil shipments were up by more than 100% during January through March 2, 2013.

Industrial chemicals and plastics shipments are supported by growth in the U.S. Chemicals industry. In Q4 2012, Union Pacific's industrial chemicals and plastics volumes grew by 8% and 7% annually, respectively, due to growth in the U.S. chemicals industry on account of low natural gas prices. We expect shipments of these product categories to record higher demand in 2013. The shale gas boom has led to increased investments in the chemicals sector, and this will positively impact Union Pacific's chemicals shipments in 2013.

Soda ash and fertilizer shipments correlated to international demand. Union Pacific's soda ash shipments grew by 4% annually in Q4 2012. We expect soda ash shipments to post modest growth in the near term, in line with growth in the global demand. Union Pacific's fertilizer shipments declined by 8% in Q4 2012, on account of weak global demand for potash . We believe this market could stay challenging in the near term on account of sluggish international demand.

Our $141 price estimate for Union Pacific is in line with the current market price.

Disclosure: No positions.

Source: Shale Gas Boom Can Help Union Pacific Offset Coal Weakness