If you think you've missed the big profits from the new U.S. energy discoveries, think again. I'm here to tell you that the transformation of the U.S. to a net energy exporter is just getting under way.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Energy released a report showing sizable growth in oil and gas reserves. And reserves are growing too -- production is up considerably. In the last two years alone, U.S. crude oil production has risen by 19%. This growth trend is going to continue. U.S. oil production in May reached the highest level since 1992. And next year, crude production will rise another 11%.
Consider the Bakken Shale formation as an example. Once fracking technology was used to unlock the reserves, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated 3.6 billion barrels of oil in 2007. Today, the USGS now estimates there are 7.2 billion barrels in the Bakken -- thanks to extensive drilling and technological advances. Other estimates are far more optimistic, as high as 18 billion barrels.
Now the Bakken Shale is just one of the several U.S. discoveries of this size. And nearly all of them are having their reserve estimates increased recently. Today, we are less than 10 years into this developing shale oil and gas boom. It'll be another 17 years before the U.S. achieves true energy independence. And then there will be many decades of considerable energy production from current and new discoveries.
All of this points to a rapidly growing energy sector still in its infancy. For you baseball fans, consider it the second inning of the game. One of my favorite plays on the U.S. energy boom are companies in the business of distributing oil and natural gas. These are known as master limited partnerships, or MLPs. I love this sector because it's relatively immune to commodity price fluctuations.
How is that possible? Because these pipeline operators charge a fee based on the volume of oil or gas that they transport -- not based on the market price. The big risk to MLPs is that prices fall and producers cut back production. With oil now above $100 per barrel, and natural gas up 83% from the lows, it seems unlikely that big cuts in production will happen. You should think of MLPs like a company owning and operating a toll road. They charge a flat fee for the right to use the road, whether the person is driving a Ford Pinto or a Mercedes Maybach.
Investors who want a quick and easy way to get exposure to MLPs should look at ETFs. One of the biggest is the JP Morgan Alerian MLP (AMJ), with $6 billion in assets. This fund invests in shares of MLPs. And by owning this ETF, investors gain diversified exposure to MLPs and collect a dividend yield of 4.6%. Shares have also performed well, rising 23% in the last year.
Alternatively, you could buy shares of an individual MLP. These companies trade just like stocks, but are technically "partnerships." In my mind, buying individual MLPs allows for greater upside. For example, if you’re bullish on the Bakken Shale, you might look into Tesoro Logistics (TLLP) -- a company that transports crude oil from the region using rails. While the yield is low for an MLP at 3.4%, the company's growth should allow for dividend growth in the years ahead. Dividend growers are one of my favorite investments, and MLPs like Tesoro in the growing energy sector should pay out more to investors down the road.