In a previous article, I gave a lot of details on natural gas as it relates to commercial transportation in the United States and included a brief overview of the broader legal issues surrounding the natural gas and the commercial transportation industry. Although there are certainly others players in the industry, I have chosen to continue to focus on Westport (NASDAQ:WPRT) and CLNE (NASDAQ:CLNE) as they represent practical small-cap plays traded in the United States that have sufficient size, outstanding shares and daily trading volume to suit my risk level and are directly affected by the issues outlined in these articles. I would point out that CLNE is a pure U.S. market play, while WPRT has some international exposure i.e. hedge and additional possibilities.
There are other companies that one could use to access this market. There are smaller and more risky high-tech companies making tanks, duel fuel engines, tri-fuel engines, conversion kits et cetera and of course there are established companies with lower risk and positive cash flow that are either waiting on the sidelines planning a national infrastructure or export. I will touch briefly on these larger players as they relate to export (I mentioned some new natural gas fueling players previously), but I would have to write a separate article to give them the attention they deserve. The same applies to state legislative actions and international issues that bear on this "hot" area of stock, law and politics.
The previous article gives quite a bit of data surrounding the commercial trucking industry, natural gas and natural gas engines. It is a nice primer for this article and who knows, you might learn something new. So with the caveats that you must read the previous article this builds on, and, that this article is an overview meant to guide deeper research, let's begin.
Under the hood of every government are politicians and private parties, some well meaning, some not, who have an interest in controlling and/or profiting on energy resources that power industry and civilization as we know it. This article will focus on the United States natural gas market and the ongoing battle that is taking place over the issues of subsidies and export in the U.S. Federal government as we speak. The game, the players and the jostling for positions is/are both fascinating and valuable as the stakes are the possibility of new subsidies and laws that will directly affect these stocks and others in the sector.
No discussion of any kind of energy used to power commercial transportation in the United States can start without the topic of subsidies. A subsidy is a broad "term of art" that covers any incentive a government can think of to help a group, company or sector of business. It can come in the form of taxes, grants, money, depreciation schedules and a whole host of other formats limited only by creativity and numbers.
The United States has a long history of subsidizing oil, starting when oil first became an alternative to steam and manpower (early 1900s) right up the 1970s. The effectiveness of subsidies and the human desire to use something better and faster than steam, horses or strong backs can be directly correlated to the massive increase in oil and gas production during this period of time. "Oil and gas production increased from 16% of total U.S. energy production in the 1920 to 71.1% of total energy production in the 1970 (the peak year)" [pdf].
Life was good until the early 1970s: oil companies grew bigger and made a lot of money as United States spread and expanded, shipping cargo and traveling this enormous country in big cars on paved asphalt.
What happened in the early 1970s? At that time, for various reasons (the federal government needed more money, pollution was becoming a reality, giving subsidies to a profitable industry was not "fair" and the U.S. was becoming beholden to the whims of some very unstable anti-democratic oil producing countries who had just tried to form a monopoly/cartel called OPEC), our government decided to move away from a consumption model to more of a conservation model. The United States started to retreat from subsidizing this massive industry with the idea that the resulting loss of subsidies would drive big investment away from oil (where they were making more than plenty of money) and towards alternative energy (subsidies were left in place to support alternative energy). Remember the surge in solar ovens, passive solar, straw bale homes, et cetera in the 1970s? It wasn't just crazy hippies. A lot of U.S. citizens wanted to make alternative energy work, but the problem was oil was still too profitable and convenient, even with the "drop" in subsidies. Too many oil subsidies were left in place, we simply didn't have access to the technology we have today, and the "alternative energy" sector was still in its infancy while big brother oil was not.
It was about this time (1977 to be exact) that the "Secretary of Energy" cabinet post and Department of Energy ("DOE") were created. The job of the Secretary of Energy was to advise the president of the United States on issues of nuclear waste, energy and, more importantly, for our discussion, energy conservation. A number of other agencies were rolled into the Department of Energy. We can thank the oil embargo in 1973, the cold war and Carter for these developments. The idea was that we needed to reduce our dependence on oil as it was unsustainable and unstable and the proceeds from it were being used to fund interests counter to our own. We needed to invest in research to produce different energy. We needed to deal with the nuclear waste pile that was going to last 250,000 years, created while we were in the process of fighting the Cold War and fueling first generation nuclear power plants that had a surprisingly limited lifespan. The nuclear power movement (first generation plants) gives you an idea of how serious the U.S. government considered its oil issues to be when one thinks about the tradeoffs made. Nonetheless, the United States could still not tame its oil dependence. Time ticked on and fuel prices at the pump continued to cause problems.
Fast forward to 2009 when we finally ran headlong into a recession. Obama was elected and he entered the presidency with a lot of money to fix problems, around $830 billion dollars. Secretary of Energy Chu, appointed by Obama, happened to be the Secretary of Energy when the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009" was passed and as a result, his department was given an enormous amount of money to spend, i.e. power. Though the primary mission of the Department of Energy is to deal with the U.S. nuclear mess, it also dabbled (relatively speaking) in research and subsidies. It was in this capacity that Chu found a way to fund his "vision" of HTRE ("High Tech Renewable Energy"). I might write another article explaining the "who in government" that is in charge of our deregulated natural gas industry, but that is for another day so let's stay focused.
Chu was outspoken about the dangers of global warming and a proponent of alternative energy: of the $831 billion stimulus dollars, that Obama had license to spend, roughly $25 billion (the numbers vary, depending on how calculated, but you get my point) was spent on energy efficiency and renewable energy research and investment. The Congressional Budget Office statement indicates renewables got almost $16 billion while fossil fuels (oil and gas) got $2.4 billion. Guess who got the lion's share? Natural gas didn't "get no respect," as comedian Rodney Dangerfield would say. You will notice that gas still suffered from being lumped in with oil (they are both petrochemicals, so there is a natural historical inclination to do so), however as I discuss later, this is clearly changing.
Chu wanted the HTRE sector to blossom, as he believed that scientifically, this was the best way to avoid global warming and pollution. His spending at the time, "a drop in the bucket" (a drop of $830 billion!) amounted to a lot of money. The shame was that he just didn't like natural gas (another polluting petrochemical, even if cleaner than oil) and didn't understand the bigger issues at play (you can't make a country competitive by making it run on a more expensive form of energy immediately, even if it is the right thing to do). He was a visionary (he is correct that HTRE's will play a role in the future, but we are in the present) and, to be fair, the full import of the natural gas boom was just surfacing. So Chu planned, advised, wrote and whispered into Obama's ear and as a result, things didn't bode well for natural gas being an alternative to oil. Sadly, at the end of his appointment, Chu became a natural gas spokesman, but by then, he had already set the course with the cash he got from Obama, and this is how the media and people will probably remember him.
Obama was reelected and given another term to do something and, by then, the full effect of the natural gas boom was realized. To Obama's credit, he acted. Chu left, and Ernest Moniz will likely be confirmed soon. The truth is that Moniz is a bellwether for natural gas more than anything else (remember the primary purpose of the DOE mentioned above), a "canary in a coal mine" who must be taken into account since he has some power (relatively speaking), but is not "in charge". However, as a bellwether, he appears to be "for" natural gas, and combined with the Obama's Energy Agenda, and recent actions in the federal legislature, it appears things may be "safe" for the adoption of natural gas. Can you say the "right" decisions will be made? Can you say how fast they will be made? You cannot. However you can say decisions will be made, and based on the federal legislative history, plans are being made. The stage is set: let's talk energy subsidies.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), just came out with a comprehensive international study on subsidies. I reference this not for the political conclusions, but to provide a quick indication of the size and scope of the international subsidies given to energy, which give one an idea of the global subsidy market that the United States is competing in.
I may flesh out the oil/gas federal government infrastructure in another article, but the Energy Information Administration (EIA) is a highly valuable resource for discussions about the U.S. government and energy. This entity was created to be a separate and independent agency designed to produce unbiased data to help federal government officials make decisions (You didn't think they compiled all the data themselves, did you?). These reports are regularly cited and relied on by various viewpoints as the data is considered neutral (though the viewpoints who use it are not). The EIA came out with a report in July 2011, called the "Direct Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy in Fiscal Year 2010" (pdf). It has a lot of qualifiers on the data you must pay attention to, but in short, it shows a comparison of 2007 vs. 2010 energy subsidies for different forms of energy. It shows that oil and gas subsidies increased from $2010 million to $2820 million, that renewable energy went from $5124 million to $14674 million and coal went from $943 million to $1358 million. These numbers reflect the decisions of Chu and others about where to put the funding they were given. If you look at the stock market and companies created to produce HTRE, there is a clear correlation. Whether they were wise sustainable investments or not, the point is that subsidies can and do drive industry and markets in the U.S., just as they do abroad. Despite concerns about how subsidies impact the global economy and citizens who live in it, it is a very real part of how present day business works. In order to change things (or end up in tariff wars relabeled as subsidies ... another discussion) we must work with today while keeping tomorrow in mind.
So in 2012, to try to balance out this subsidy equation, House of Representatives (H.R.) bill 1380 and U.S. Senate (S.) bill 1863, were proposed. These are the numbers assigned to the "New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act of 2011," a subsidy proposed for law in 2011 and again in another format in 2012. Read the text (pdf): these are massive subsidies. (For those of you who need to brush up on the law-making process, start with the basics and then read this. It does not take long and is essential to understanding this article, besides, everyone who lives in a democratic republic should know it to understand, complain or promote effectively.)
H.R. 1380 - Introduced on 4/6/2011 with 179 co-sponsors - "New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act of 2011." On 4/6/11, it was referred to the House Subcommittee, it was then referred to the Subcommittee on Energy and Power.
S. 1863 - Introduced on 11/15/2011 with 6 co-sponsors - "New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act of 2011." On 4/6/11 it was referred to The House committee, read twice and referred to Subcommittee on Energy and Power.
A quick summary: this bill proposed, among other things, to modify the IRS code to give subsides through tax credits to vehicles powered by compressed natural gas or liquid natural gas or bi-fuel or converted engines (with stipulations). Credits included, but were not limited to: a tax subsidy of $7,500 for vehicles less than 8,500 pounds, $16,000 for vehicles between 8,500 pounds and 14,000 pounds, $40,000 for vehicles more than 14,000 pounds but not more than 26,000 pounds and a $64,000 tax subsidy for vehicles greater than 26,000 pounds. Can you say commercial trucking? Refueling properties would get funding, tax breaks and grants as well, though the details not lend themselves to quick summaries.
Though this bill had significant backing, there were a lot of interests at play. There is a term of art used in politics called "death by committee" - bills get sent to committees and never come out again to see the light of day - and that is what happened to this subsidy in 2011. As an aside, my father who was an avid follower of politics and a child of the great depression used to call this "the slow painful death." I always found this a dark but funny and accurate definition.
In 2012, another stab was made at this process with an amendment to the language on a highway bill, S.AMDT.1782, and it nearly passed. It fell short due to the highway bill requiring 60 votes, and the final tally was only 51/47. It is interesting that the bill would have passed but for some last minute wrangling over who would benefit from this subsidy, whether a subsidy should be given at all and a rumor that it failed to get the support of "chemical producing companies." (Remember how I said there is multiple groups at play? Chemical companies use a lot of natural gas (explained in the other article) and are sensitive to legislation that will change demand as they want their energy cheap.) If the argument stayed focused on the primary purpose of the bill "The New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act," it might have been a different outcome, but that is politics for you. I would note that failure of this bill does not mean it will not be tried again as I conclude below.
I will get into the present status of subsidies, but first, let's talk about exporting gas. It's relevant and necessary knowledge to have in order to come to some sort of summary and conclusion.
It is a fact that United States has a lot of natural gas. In my previous article, I gave links to the government statistics on present vs. proposed export terminals in the US and noted that the numbers are astounding. One might benefit from carefully researching the ownership, development stage and status, size, permit stage and "place in line" with FERC, shipping routes, port depth and size, likely trading partners based on location, piping distances, relative distances to major production et cetera for the following proposed terminals:
Freeport, TX: 1.8 Bcfd (Freeport LNG Dev/Freeport LNG Expansion/FLNG Liquefaction)
Corpus Christi, TX: 2.1 Bcfd (Cheniere - Corpus Christi LNG)
Coos Bay, OR: 0.9 Bcfd (Jordan Cove Energy Project)
Lake Charles, LA: 2.4 Bcfd (Southern Union - Trunkline LNG)
Hackberry, LA: 1.7 Bcfd (Sempra - Cameron LNG)
Cove Point, MD: 0.75 Bcfd (Dominion - Cove Point LNG)
Astoria, OR: 1.30 Bcfd (Oregon LNG)
Lavaca Bay, TX: 1.38 Bcfd (Excelerate Liquefaction)
Elba Island, GA: 0.5 Bcfd (Southern LNG Company)
Sabine Pass; LA: 1.3 Bcfd (Sabine Pass Liquefaction)
Lake Charles, LA: 1.07 Bcfd (Magnolia LNG)
Here are the players: Freeport, TX is Conocophillips (NYSE:COP) and a private party, Corpus Christi, TX is Cheniere (LNG), Coos Bay, OR is Canadian Veresen Inc. (VSN.TO), Lake Charles, LA is Energy Transfer Partners LP (NYSE:ETP), Hackberry, LA is Sempra Energy (NYSE:SRE), Cove Point, MD is Dominion (NYSE:D), Astoria, OR is privately held, Lavaca Bay, TX is a mix of private (George Kaiser) and RWE Supply and Trading, Elba Island, GA is Shell (ADR) and El Paso Pipeline (NYSE:EPB), Sabine Pass, LA is Cheniere and Lake Charles, LA is an Australian Company Liquefied Natural Gas Limited (ASX:LNG).
I also noted that the gap between the price of natural gas in the United States vs. abroad is equally astounding; however, please note that this means profit, but not necessarily enormous profit. The issues of spot pricing vs. oil indexation (with its associated long term contracts as discussed in the previous article), cost of liquefying (very energy intensive), transporting, and returning the liquid to gas must be considered. In addition one must factor in development of natural gas reserves in other countries and which markets United States allows these companies to exported to.
Political pundits and carnival barking have confused the issue, but I think common sense would lead anyone to conclude that if the export market grows before our national market and demand grows, the pressure of mutual demand on production would drive prices more towards the international spot market price for natural gas (at present, the margins are higher so it can afford to pay more) instead of driving prices to the lower figure associated with national "in-house" production. Put another way, if the scales tip towards demand with problems in supply, prices go up and supply is not a spigot that can just be turned off and on (discussed previously).
The result of a perfect storm of heavy export and a sudden significant increase in national use would be profit for the U.S. exporters of natural gas (who trade in high volume directly from producers with stable federally managed intrastate piping charges) and a great pain for our burgeoning national natural gas transportation movement (who do not have the same kind of clout in volume and contract). Unless the "infant" natural gas fuel movement and others are given time to "grow and walk a bit", or helped a bit with subsidies, this could spell trouble. This could "suffocate but not kill" a number of growing industries who are relying on the cheap cost of natural gas energy (compared to other fuels) for national growth (industrial energy consumers and for purposes of this article, specifically commercial transportation).
The size of the numbers and interests involved has resulted in the formation of various "nonprofits", websites and political action committees with nice names. You know, "Americans for . . . ", "Americans Against . . . ", "Fair Treatment of . . . ", "I'm Your Friend So Believe Me . . . ". Please excuse the tongue and cheek, but at some point the "name game" gets quite funny, though the topic is not. In the midst of all of this, Federal laws are being proposed and positions are being taken in this turf war. Here are some of the proposals, just in 2013:
H.R. 580 - introduced 2/6/13 - Expedited LNG for American Allies Act of 2013 - Referred to the House subcommittee on Energy and Commerce and the subcommittee of Energy and Power. The point: U.S. would only sell natural gas to nations to nations with whom it had free trade agreements, are members of NATO, specifically Japan, or promotes national security interests of the U.S.. Here are some proposals just in 2013:
S. 192 - introduced 1/31/2013 - Expedited LNG for American Allies Act of 2013 - Referred to the Senate Committee. Status: read twice and referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. *This is the senate version of H.R 580.
H.R. 1191 - introduced on 3/14/2013 - Keep American Natural Gas Here Act - Referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources. In short, natural gas and oil lease on federal land will only be granted if the product is not exported.
H.R. 601 - introduced on 2/8/2013 - Permanent Repeal of Oil Subsidies Act- Referred to the House subcommittee and subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. In short: this piece of legislation is complicated and not easily summarized however the name gives you an idea of its goal.
*Note this article does not included a discussion of FERC and other agencies approval process that also effects this.
Keep in mind that proposed laws do not necessarily become laws (almost all of them die in committee), and the steps necessary to actually make law are complicated, full of pitfalls and are time intensive in debate and discussion. If you have extra time: glance at Riddick's Senate Procedure to get a taste of how complex the nuances of political maneuvering on the Senate floor really is even should a bill get before the senate. Be warned: it is not for dabblers as Emeritus Floyd M. Riddick was a partliamentarian and may have been a genius who spent his whole adult life in U.S. Federal politics.
Present Status of Things/Summary/Conclusions
So this discussion lays out the basis for my conclusion that two major competing interests are fighting to be the first to 'benefit" from natural gas: export and national consumers (in particular, national commercial trucking consumers for purposes of this article). The laws, regulations and subsidies of the United States are being used to decide what this eventual outcome will be through regulation, law and subsidies. Though oil subsidies are continuing to fall out of vogue, natural gas is no longer under the shadow of oil.
There are present movements to "subsidize" this new "clean" fuel that offers the possibility of both bridging United States from oil to the next chapter of our energy consumption while playing a roll in reducing our national deficit by being a new strong national export. It lays out the reasons why the U.S. government is finally paying attention and some of the issues Senators and House Representatives are weighing when trying to choose a proper course. It lays out my position that at present, the U.S. laws on export and subsidies relating to natural gas must be carefully considered and watched by investors in the field of commercial trucking as well as this energy sector.
Who will win this battle remains to be seen, but rest assured that the U.S. Energy Information Administration, U. S. Department of Energy, Federal Energy Regulation Commission, U.S. Senators, U.S. House of Representatives, various federal commissions, companies and people with vested interests are watching, planning and making decisions. Here is that new data I promised, but you will have to do your own research. The transcripts from various committee meetings are extremely interesting and full of data. I would note that now, almost every bill treats natural gas as a separate entity from oil. The federal government is no longer treating them as brothers and my feeling is that the commercial transportation sector [the backbone of our country, the oldest stock index still in use (Dow Jones Transportation Average)] is due for, or is presently engaged in change. How quick depends on how quickly deals are struck behind closed doors in our Congress, but given the importance of these issues, the number of laws being proposed, the number of committee meetings being held and the history of prior legislation, I would expect to see another direct attempt to pass subsidies (Republicans and Democrats may have something to agree on as natural gas is considered "greener"), or bits and pieces of the older attempts at subsidies will start to appear in proposals: a bit in DOE grants, a change in how natural gas fuel is taxed, a subsidy for fueling stations, mandates for state vehicles to buy natural gas vehicles, a new "definition" of the term "alternative energy" that suddenly includes natural gas. I would also expect federal legislation and approval from FERC for export facilities to be heating up simultaneously, though my research leaves me with the strong feeling that the export gates are not going to suddenly fly open. We are already exporting significant amount of fuel now through established channels, and the issue of how much more must be resolved by a compromise. The nature of our democratic republic requires it.
These are interesting times: best of luck with your decision. I write these articles to focus and learn. Please post relevant data and facts (with source if appropriate) if you care too. Good points come from all perspectives and none of us know everything.
Some Subsidy Bills Proposed in 2013.
S. 570: A bill to establish a competitive grant program in the Department of Energy to provide grants to States and units of local government to carry out clean energy and carbon reduction measures, to close big oil company tax loopholes to pay for the competitive grant program and reduce the deficit, and for other purposes.
Introduced: Mar 14, 2013 (113th Congress, 2013-2015)
Sponsor: Sen. Michael Bennet [D-CO]
Status: Referred to Committee
H.R. 1189: American Natural Gas Security and Consumer Protection Act
Introduced: Mar 14, 2013 (113th Congress, 2013-2015)
Sponsor: Rep. Edward "Ed" Markey [D-MA5]
Status: Referred to Committee
S. 656: A bill to promote the domestic development and deployment of natural gas and clean energy technologies.
Introduced: Mar 22, 2013 (113th Congress, 2013-2015)
Sponsor: Sen. Robert "Bob" Casey Jr. [D-PA]
Status: Referred to Committee
S. 329: Sustainable Energy Act
Introduced: Feb 14, 2013 (113th Congress, 2013-2015)
Sponsor: Sen. Bernard "Bernie" Sanders [I-VT]
Status: Referred to Committee
H.RES.58: Latest Title: Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that any comprehensive plan to reform our national energy policy must promote the expanded use of renewable and alternative energy sources; increase our domestic refining capacity; promote conservation and increased energy efficiency; expand research and development, including domestic exploration; and enhance consumer education.
Sponsor: Rep Latta, Robert E. [OH-5]
Status: 2/8/2013 Referred to House subcommittee. Status: Referred to the Subcommittee on Energy and Power.
H.R. 1364: New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act of 2013
Sponsor: Rep. John Larson [D-CT1]
Status: Referred to Committee
* Ok, I saved the best for last...
Disclosure: I am long WPRT, CLNE. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.
Additional disclosure: I may initiate other purchases in the energy sector within the next 24 hours. I am expressing my own opinions and research. It is your responsibility to research this data and confirm its accuracy before relying on it for investment.