Just about everybody on earth should know by now that the oil sands are a vast and virtually limitless supply that's going to backstop North American energy security for a century or more.
But for all the hype and hoopla, surprisingly few investors know how to play the full oil sands value chain.
The thing to remember about a massive development undertaking - a mega, mega project - is that it’s not a single homogenous entity. There’s a whole support network that has to be built around it.
Oil and gas producers are basically procurement houses that go out and buy what they need. Everything from drilling wells to building and operating pipelines - even the catering - is contracted to third parties. By entering specific points in the supply chain, it’s possible to create a surprisingly resilient portfolio that’s diversified while still taking advantage of big growth opportunities in the many, many years ahead.
The first link is the producers. For almost half a century oil sands have traditionally been a game for Majors. Everyone thinks of trucks and shovels, but more than 80% of the resource is actually too deep to be mined. Most of the new production over the decade will come from specialized steam injection schemes.
During the past 18 months, there have been some high profile IPOs, backed with foreign capital from China. Names like Athabasca Oil (OTCPK:ATHOF) and MEG Energy (OTCPK:MEGEF) are but two. Given China’s voracious appetite for overseas investment, there will inevitably be more IPOs to come.
On that front, the first half of this year also promises to be active, with Laricina Energy and OSUM Oil Sands hitting the street this spring. Calgary-based Peters and Co. recently did a valuation on both companies and says that they’re going to be popular issues. Laracina could fetch $37/share and OSUM $16/share on their respective IPOs. Call it informed speculation considering they’ll probably be in the underwriting syndicate, at which point they’ll be restricted.
Another bright light is Black Pearl (OTCPK:BLKPF), headed by former Black Rock Ventures guru John Festival. You might recall he sold his predecessor company to Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) a couple of years back for a few billion. Little wonder the shares have tripled in less than a year.
The real key to this oil sands renaissance is horizontal drilling and steam injection. By now SAGD (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage) is a relatively mature technology that sees pairs of parallel horizontal wells work in tandem to inject steam and bring oil back up to the surface. This is a sophisticated undertaking that requires the skills of a surgeon and some heavy iron. Enter the drillers.
The coldest winter in a decade means all of Canada’s contract drillers are really hot right now. Precision Drilling (NYSE:PDS) is up almost 20% in the past two weeks alone and rivals like Trinidad Drilling (OTCPK:TDGCF) and Murray Edwards’ Ensign Resource Services (OTCPK:ESVIF) have had a good run this winter. Both have good exposure to the oilseeds, with Ensign running nearly 300 coring rigs that are used to prove up reserves, while Precision has the heavy iron need to drill the new steam assisted thermal wells.
The best performer of all is Stoneham Drilling Trust (OTC:STHMF) which is fast becoming a player with its share price quadrupling since last October. It’s one of the last remaining oil and gas trusts, but that will change around Canada Day when it converts to a corp. One of the company’s biggest customers is Cenovus Energy (NYSE:CVE) which is the industry leader in the thermal oil sands space.
Keeping those rigs turning requires a whole support network of its own – where do you go when a reamer or a winch goes down in the middle of the night? That’s where CE Franklin (CFK) comes in. The company is the Canadian Tire of the oil patch, supplying literally thousands of products like valves, flanges and drill pipe that are essential to support field operations. The company’s web site boasts that it can fix everything from quads and pick-up trucks to full blown drilling rigs.
In February, the company reported that oil sands accounts for about 15%, or $11.5 million, of its fourth quarter sales revenue. And the company said it is committed to leveraging its presence in the Fort McMurray area to capture a bigger slice of this pie.
Although it’s firmly rooted in the oil and gas industry, the company’s operating metrics have a retail character, like the oil patch version of Walmart. IROC (OTC:ISCPF) is another new entrant that has managed to post impressive share price gains while remaining affordable. Higher drilling levels will inevitably translate to higher sales revenue for everybody in the space and IROC is positioned for growth.
In its most recent operational update, the company said its Canada Tech division hopes to start realizing positive returns from a series of products and solutions designed specifically for steam assisted gravity drainage projects in the oil sands.
Up until now we’ve been talking about upstream production. But selling all that oil to American - and possibly Asian - markets is the key to true diversification for investors and oil companies alike. The downstream is the one area where your interests are truly aligned with industry.
Led by pipelines, it’s a whole parallel universe of support services that connect producers with refineries and trading hubs. Canada’s pipes are in an exciting growth period, and we’re talking about some extremely ambitious projects, namely Enbridge’s (NYSE:ENB) proposed Gateway to the West Coast and TransCanada’s (NYSE:TRP) Keystone to the Gulf of Mexico. When completed, the projects will move more than 1.5 million barrels of oil sands crude for export. To put it in perspective, Libya - an OPEC member - was only exporting 1.5 million barrels a day before it came unhinged.
TransCanada’s Keystone is banking on the U.S. to get over its fixation with “dirty” oil, but rival Enbridge has been looking to the West Coast and threatening to break out to Asia. Both are taking bold steps that will allow Canadian production to get the full world price and open new markets.
Both have had good share price appreciation and it’s hard not to like the steady returns offered by owning a high-yielding dividend. They are also a lot less exposed to volatile commodity prices. Due to the way they’re financed, pipelines are considered lower risk lower reward, but both companies have been showing good near and long-term growth.
Either one is a good hold or place to park when the market turns south. Enbridge will be splitting its shares later this spring, which will make them more affordable to own.
Finally, it’s one thing to throw a bunch of steel into the ground but quite another to keep it up and running. Sometime in the next year or two, the amount of money required to maintain all these pots and pans is going to surpass the amount of new capital investment, which is estimated at around $18 billion this year, according to the Oilsands Review magazine.
Put another way that means almost half of all the spending in the oil patch will go to keeping these oil sands projects going - it’s a staggering sum.
On that front, Flint Energy Services (OTC:FESVF) is probably the best positioned to capitalize. Last November it announced a $450-million contract with Suncor (NYSE:SU) to keep its oil sands projects - some of which have been operating for 40 years - in tip-top shape.
Company representatives told the OSR they expect revenue from its oil sands maintenance unit to equal and surpass its oil sands construction division in the next five years.
There you have it, a long and rather exhaustive look at the oil sands value chain. By picking spots along each length of the chain it’s possible to actually diversify within the sector and profit on what will likely prove to be the last big oil rush on earth, providing even the humblest investor with a steady stream of profits for decades to come.
Disclosure: I am long BLKPF.PK.