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Sempra Energy (NYSE:SRE)

Q1 2012 Earnings Call

May 03, 2012 1:00 pm ET

Executives

Richard A. Vaccari - Vice President of Investor Relations and Treasurer

Debra L. Reed - Chief Executive Officer, Director and Chairman of Executive Committee

Joseph A. Householder - Chief Financial Officer, Chief Accounting Officer and Executive Vice President

Mark A. Snell - President

Analysts

Stephen Byrd - Morgan Stanley, Research Division

Kit Konolige - Konolige Research, LLC

Paul Patterson - Glenrock Associates LLC

Greg Gordon - ISI Group Inc., Research Division

Ashar Khan

Mark Barnett - Morningstar Inc., Research Division

Michael J. Lapides - Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Research Division

Operator

Good day, and welcome to the Sempra Energy First Quarter Earnings Call. Today's conference is being recorded. At this time, I would like to turn the conference over to Mr. Rick Vaccari. Please go ahead, sir.

Richard A. Vaccari

Good morning, and thank you for joining us. I'm Rick Vaccari, Vice President of Investor Relations. This morning, we'll be discussing Sempra Energy's First Quarter 2012 Financial Results. A live webcast of this teleconference and slide presentation is available on our website under the Investors section.

With us today in San Diego are several members of our management team, including Debbie Reed, Chief Executive Officer; Mark Snell, President; Joe Householder, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer; and Bruce Folkmann, Acting Controller.

Before starting, I'd like to remind everyone that we will be discussing forward-looking statements on this call within the meaning of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. Actual results may differ materially from those discussed today. The factors that could cause our actual results to differ materially are discussed in the company's reports filed with the SEC. I'd also like to note that the forward-looking statements contained in this presentation speak only as of today, May 3, 2012, and the company does not assume any obligation to update or revise any of these forward-looking statements in the future.

With that, I'll turn it over to Debbie.

Debra L. Reed

Thanks, Rick, and thank all of you for joining us today. Before we get started, I wanted to note that Rick Vaccari is with us today in his new role as Vice President of Investor Relations, which he assumed following our analyst conference. Rick takes over for Steve Davis, who is now Senior Vice President of External Affairs. If you haven't had a chance to meet Rick, I trust you will very soon.

I'd also like to thank those of you who joined us here in San Diego for our analyst conference at the end of March, and those of you who participated in the webcast. It was a great opportunity for us to meet many of you and to show you how we plan to produce above average long-term earnings growth and support a competitive and growing dividend going forward.

Now, on today's call, I'd like to accomplish 2 things. We'll review our first quarter financial results, and then we'll give you an operational update on our businesses. Let's begin with our financial results. Earlier this morning, we reported first-quarter earnings of $236 million or $0.97 per share, compared with $254 million or $1.05 per share in the same period last year. All of our businesses performed well, and we're on track to meet our earnings guidance for 2012, which is $4 to $4.30 per share. You'll note that this is the first quarter of reporting our financial results under our new operating unit structure.

We now have 6 reporting segments, which include our 2 California utilities, SDG&E and SoCalGas. We have 2 reportable segments within Sempra International, the South American Utilities and Mexico segments. And finally, we have Sempra U.S. Gas & Power, which consists of the Renewables and Natural Gas segments.

Now, let me hand it over to Joe so he can take you through some of the details of the financial results beginning with Slide 4.

Joseph A. Householder

Thanks, Debbie. At San Diego Gas & Electric, earnings for the first quarter were $105 million, up from $89 million in the year-ago quarter. The increase in earnings was primarily due to higher equity AFUDC earnings compared to the year-ago period, driven by the construction of the Sunrise Powerlink project that is very near completion.

Moving on to Southern California Gas, first quarter 2012 earnings were $66 million, compared to $68 million in the first quarter of 2011. I'd like to point out that until we receive final decisions in the SDG&E and SoCalGas general rate cases, we will be recording revenues based upon our 2011 authorized levels with no attrition plus an adjustment for the actual incremental costs of wildfire insurance premiums at SDG&E. Once those general rate cases are resolved, we will expect to -- which we expect to occur in the second half of this year, we'll record the cumulative impact of the decision from January 1 through the quarter in which the final decision is issued.

Now let's go to Slide 5. Within the Sempra International operating unit, we have 2 reporting segments, as Debbie just mentioned. At our South American Utilities, which includes the electric distribution utilities in Chile and Peru, earnings were $40 million in the first quarter of 2012, that's up from $22 million last year. The $18 million increase was due to higher earnings as a result of the acquisition of the controlling interest in our 2 South American utilities in April 2011. Our Mexican operations include the Energia Costa Azul LNG terminal, natural gas pipelines, the joint venture we have at Pemex, the Mexicali natural gas fuel generation plant, as well as a small natural gas distribution business.

For the first quarter of 2012, the Sempra Mexico segment produced earnings of $37 million compared with $39 million in the same period last year.

Now, please turn to Slide 6. In the U.S. Gas & Power business, our 2 reporting segments are Renewables and Natural Gas. The Renewables segment represents our U.S.-based wind and solar business. The Renewables earnings were $10 million in the first quarter this year, that's up from $4 million in the same period of last year on a restated basis to reflect the change in accounting method for projects that we have with investment tax credits. The restatement reduced first quarter 2011 earnings by $4 million, which is $0.02 of earnings per share. As we've previously mentioned, beginning in the first quarter of 2012, we are using the deferral method of accounting for these credits.

In the Natural Gas segment, which includes our storage and pipeline assets, the Cameron LNG terminal, the 1,250-megawatt Mesquite natural gas fuel generation plant and the small natural gas distribution business, earnings were $1 million in the first quarter of 2012. The decrease in earnings of $62 million compared to the prior-year period was primarily due to the expiration of the CDWR contract.

And with that, I'll hand the call back to Debbie.

Debra L. Reed

Thanks, Joe. Now, I'd like to update you on some of the key activities within our businesses. Starting with our California utilities. Last month, we and the other major utilities in California, filed our application in the cost of capital proceedings, seeking approval of a new proposed cost of capital to be effective in 2013. In these proceedings, the CPUC determines the appropriate and reasonable rate of return necessary to attract capital. This compensates the utilities for their business and financial risks and promotes continued safe and reliable operations. Both SDG&E and SoCalGas requested adjustments to their capital structures and the authorized cost of debt, preferred stock and return on equity.

SDG&E requested a decrease in the overall rate of return from 8.4% to 8.2%, reflecting a lower cost of funds raised by the company since its previous proceeding in 2007. The proposal included a decrease in return on equity from 11.1% to 11%, and an increase in the common equity component of its capital structure from 49% to 52%.

SoCalGas requested a decrease in the overall rate of return from 8.68% to 8.42%, also due to the lower cost of funds raised since its last adjustment in 2003. The proposal included a slight increase in the return on common equity from 10.82% to 10.9%, and an increase in the common equity component of its capital structure from 48% to 52%. Both utilities also proposed to continue mechanisms that automatically adjust the cost of capital until the next proceeding, proposed for 2016. The mechanisms would trigger adjustments in the event of market changes that exceed certain measurement levels. SDG&E currently has the same mechanism as Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric that propose a safeguard provision to protect against extreme changes in interest rates. SoCalGas currently has a different adjustment mechanism that is based on U.S. Treasury. The other large California utilities used a mechanism based upon utility bonds, and SoCalGas has also requested to use utility bonds. SoCalGas also proposed the safeguard provision against extreme changes in interest rates.

We expect the final decision in the cost of capital proceedings by the end of this year, which will be effective in January 2013.

I'd also like to remind you that for SDG&E, this cost of capital filing only covers CPUC jurisdictional assets. SDG&E's electric transmission assets are regulated by the FERC, which currently has an authorized return on equity of 11.35% on actual equity. The currently authorized FERC return is effective until September 2013.

Please turn to the next Slide. Now, on to some of the other key regulatory proceedings. In San Diego Gas & Electric's and Southern California Gas Company's general rate case proceedings, opening briefs were filed last month and reply briefs are due in May. We expect the decision in the second half of this year, which will be retroactive to January 1 of this year.

Turning to our Pipeline Safety Enhancement Plan. Last month, the commission approved memo account to track the project costs at SoCalGas and SDG&E, and also transferred the proceeding into the Triennial Cost Allocation Proceeding, or TCAP, which is a natural gas transmission and storage rate design proceeding.

And finally, at San Diego Gas & Electric, construction of Sunrise Powerlink is now nearly 90% complete, and we expect that it will go into operation this summer. When completed, Sunrise will add about $1.2 billion to SDG&E's FERC rate base, which includes the impact of bonus depreciation. None of the project costs are currently in rate base, but once the line is operational, we'll transfer the projects of work in progress to rate base.

Now I'd like you to go to Slide 9 for an update on our Cameron LNG export project. We've made excellent progress in moving our Cameron liquefaction project forward. Last month, we announced commercial development agreements with Mitsubishi and Mitsui. These agreements commit the parties to fund the engineering and permitting of the liquefaction project. In addition, the commercial development agreements are the precursor to the tolling agreements and equity agreements. The project we are developing is a 3-train, 12-million-tonne per annum liquefaction facility. We have already agreed upon the key commercial terms of tolling agreements with Mitsubishi and Mitsui for a total of 8 million tonnes per annum from 2 liquefaction trains.

This morning, we also announced that we have reached an agreement with GDF SUEZ for the remaining 4 million tonnes per annum of capacity. On the permitting and approval front, we initiated the FERC pre-filing process earlier this week, and we expect that the FERC approval process will be complete in the second half of next year. And our application with the Department of Energy to export to non-free trade countries is pending. We previously received approval from the DOE to export to free-trade countries.

I'm very pleased with the early progress that we've seen with the Cameron export project, and I look forward to updating you in the future as we take steps towards making this project a reality.

Before we move on to the summary, I also wanted to mention that the CPUC approved SDG&E's power purchase agreement with 156-megawatt Energía Sierra Juárez Wind project that we are developing within our Sempra Mexico business. We expect to develop this as a joint venture and to start construction this year following the receipt of the remaining authorization, including those from FERC and DOE.

Now let's go to the final slide. I'm very pleased with the results of all of our businesses for the quarter. We continued to execute on our strategy throughout the quarter and made significant progress on our key initiatives. We are on track to meet our guidance of $4 to $4.30 per share for 2012, and believe that we have a clear path to achieving 6% to 8% earnings growth over the long term.

Now with that, I'll stop and open up the call to take any questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

[Operator Instructions] We'll go first to Stephen Byrd with Morgan Stanley.

Stephen Byrd - Morgan Stanley, Research Division

I just wanted to talk about the Southwest merchant gas-fired assets. Given the SONGS outage and just with low natural gas, do you have any just updates or implications for the performance of those assets or just general interest in those assets?

Debra L. Reed

Well, I would say that there has been a lot more interest generally in generation in the Southwest. There are a number of RFPs that are out right now or coming out in the very near future, so we'll get long-term contracts for generation. Some of that is associated with the ones with cooling issues, some of that is associated with looking at possible coal retirement. And I'll ask Mark to add a little bit of color on what's happening in the current marketplace.

Mark A. Snell

Well, clearly with the outage at SONGS and some of the other maintenance issues with some of the other plants in the region, we've had a tighter market than we expect in the -- for this time of year, and as we roll into summer, it looks like we're going to have, I would say, as we look at it today, it looks like we could have a slightly tighter market than what we've experienced in the past couple of summers. So that should have some upward pressure on pricing, but we're not -- we really haven't made any change in our outlook for what we think that business will do for the year. We could be pleasantly surprised, but I think at the end of the day we're kind of sticking to the numbers that we gave you at the analyst conference.

Stephen Byrd - Morgan Stanley, Research Division

Great, That's helpful. And then just on the LNG export, actually this is on Costa Azul. I'm just curious, are you having any discussions on possibly turning that into export or is that not really a focus area right now?

Mark A. Snell

We certainly are taking a look at that. It's an interesting opportunity for us. It has some advantages, as being closer to Asia and not having to go through the Canal and all that. So we are definitely taking a look at it. It isn't -- we don't have as much land there as we do in Cameron, but it is something -- we could handle maybe 1, maybe 2 trains at the most there, but -- it is something that we're exploring, but our top priority is to get Cameron online and to move that forward. And obviously, we took a big step on that today and we're really excited about it, and we think that, that will add tremendous value.

Debra L. Reed

Let me just add that, unlike Cameron, the facility in Baja is fully contracted for 20-plus years. And so, it's not -- for us, the priority is definitely on getting Cameron, which is not fully contracted, fully utilized and producing earnings.

Operator

And we'll go next to Kit Konolige with Konolige Research.

Kit Konolige - Konolige Research, LLC

Couple of questions, kind of following on this. On Cameron, can you give us some perspective on, I think Shaner is -- I think, got their equity infusion and is kind of ready to roll. Can you update us on where they are, and what, if any, implications that has for you guys on a competitive basis?

Debra L. Reed

Well [Technical Difficulty]

Mark A. Snell

The GDF announcement that we have today, kind of, completes the circle for us. So we have all 3 trains now that we have customers for, and we're just going to work forward on moving that. And I think one of the things that where we are, what we feel very comfortable with, is our partners in this project and our major customers are all experienced LNG players that have long customer relationships with Korea, with Japan, with Chile, with places that are some of the biggest users of LNG in the world. And so we feel like we're in a very good position to move our project forward.

Kit Konolige - Konolige Research, LLC

And if I can just follow up on that a little bit, can you then point out to us what you see as -- I think I know generally, but what you see as kind of the next critical steps that we need to keep an eye on? Obviously, ultimately, we need federal government approval to go ahead, and financing, but if there are specific benchmarks?

Mark A. Snell

Yes. Look, I think the things that are -- the big milestones to come forward is, first, let me just remind everybody, that we do have export capability to all the free-trade countries, and that includes Korea, which is a very big user of LNG. The next step is to get the non-free-trade export permit. And we expect to get that, as we've said, sort of later in the year, could be at the early part of next year. But that's something that we've got to get done. We also would need a FERC permit to construct, and we are working on that right now. We would expect to get that sometime later in the year. We are working on the final design and engineering, those kinds of things need to be done to get the FERC permit. So we've got a ways to go, we're just off to a very good start.

Operator

And we'll go next to Paul Patterson with Glenrock Associates.

Paul Patterson - Glenrock Associates LLC

I'm sorry if I missed this. You were talking about the MICAM filing that you guys are -- that you asked for a waiver on, I think, and what's the procedural schedule for that? When do you think the CPUC will act on that, or whoever it is who acts on that to give you the waiver on it?

Debra L. Reed

Well, we would anticipate that since we've made our filings for the cost of capital that, that would really take precedent. And that we have had -- we have made a prior filing a couple of years ago at SoCalGas because of the impact of some of the government policy issues on using [ph] in U.S. Treasury, and that was never envisioned when that mechanism was put in place. And so when we made those filings, we had some discussions with the CPUC at the time about us filing for the cost of capital. So they were expecting us to be making this filing. So I think that we will be on the same schedule as all of the utilities, and that would have us having a decision by the end of this year with new cost of capital mechanisms and cost of capital structures going into place on January 1, 2013.

Paul Patterson - Glenrock Associates LLC

But is there any idea when they'll actually formally sort of like say that you don't have to file this MICAM letter?

Debra L. Reed

No, I don't know.

Paul Patterson - Glenrock Associates LLC

Okay, that's fine. And then the wildfire litigation liability seemed to go down, I was wondering what led to that, and what the -- if there was an EPS impact, I noticed on the balance sheet, just what the -- what was going on there?

Debra L. Reed

I'm going to have Joe go through the numbers on the wildfire reserves and litigation.

Joseph A. Householder

Paul, it was mostly payments that were made. We're resolving many, many. -- we're mediating many of these cases, like 60 a month. And so mostly it was about $130 million of payments during the quarter. So it wasn't an adjustment to the reserves so much as it was payments down. There was no impact on the P&L as a result of that.

Paul Patterson - Glenrock Associates LLC

And then on the liquefaction, just on the DOE, the issue of potential export restrictions, with non-free-trade agreement of company -- of countries, excuse me. Some companies have in their negotiations with shippers, put that risk on the shipper, if you follow me. In other words, it's not one that the actual terminal owner will have. At least that's my understanding. And I'm just wondering how you guys have approached that with your contracts with the shippers and stuff, if you can tell?

Debra L. Reed

I'll have Mark go into a little bit of color on that.

Mark A. Snell

It's a great question. In the commercial development agreements that we have signed with our 3 customers and partners, they have agreed to a long-term tolling arrangement, which does not include an out or losing that license. So if we were to get the license and lose it or not get it, the long-term tolling arrangement doesn't have an out for that. But the long-term tolling arrangements haven't been signed yet, so there is some -- if we never got it between now and the time that we would sign those long-term tolling arrangements, it may change things. And I think the way we stand now, given the partners that we have, it probably has more to do with the sizing of the facility than whether it actually moves forward or not. I mean, we feel like there's enough of a market currently that there would be a market for the facility even if we didn't get it. But at the end of the day, we expect to get it. It makes the most sense. And frankly, the -- but the long-term implications of that would rest with the shipper. Now that's one of the reasons, too, though that we want them to be partners in the facility because if there was any kind of disruption like that, it's nice to do this as everybody has an equity interest in the facility, and we would work together to make -- to have the right outcomes.

Paul Patterson - Glenrock Associates LLC

Okay, that's excellent. I think that's great. and then, just finally, any sense as to how much liquefaction does the North American continent can actually handle? I mean, as you know, you're not the only ones who are announcing this stuff. Just sort of any sense we should think about like the natural sort of, just economic constraints there are of just the amount of stuff we're hearing being announced.

Mark A. Snell

Let me take that first, and I think Debbie has a comment on it, too. But I'd -- look, it's a great question, because I think there is an awful lot of concern in the country about exporting a tremendous amount of gas. And I think one thing we all have to remind ourselves is that the LNG market, while it is big, it is a fixed amount, and we have lots of competition around the world to sell that gas to those countries that need it. And so right now, we think that there's a potential kind of excess capacity in the near term -- or excess demand in the near-term, primarily driven by Japan's desire to -- as they've shut down their nuclear fleet and their desire to wean themselves off nuclear and move to gas, and then as the economies pick up, it's probably something like 20 million tonnes a year. And I think what we're talking about is a facility that could be as much as 4 -- and then when we look at some of the other facilities, there's plenty -- there's enough to absorb what could come out of the U.S., but you're not going to be in a situation where we're going to have 20, 30 Bcf a day being exported. It's probably not that big of a market right now.

Debra L. Reed

Yes. I just want to clarify something Mark said, I think he was talking about in CFD versus metric tonnes. Because when you look at the potential for export, it's higher than the 20 number...

Mark A. Snell

Yes. I confused the numbers. Yes. But it is -- the potential is, just Japan alone is probably an excess of 10 million cubic feet a day, 10 billion cubic feet a day, or something like that. So there is some potential for export but it isn't an unlimited market. So I don't think the U.S. has to worry that we're going to have a large share of our gas supply go offshore, that's probably not the case.

Debra L. Reed

And what I was going to say is, yesterday, I'm sure many of you saw that the Brookings Institution published a study, and they looked at an export level of 9 Bcf a day out of that study, and showing very, very minimal impact on gas prices coming from that. And at least their approach was that, it should be open to all parties who can participate in the market. And I mean, I think that's the position we would really like to see adopted, is that this becomes market-based, we think of this as market-based, we have a very competitive facility. And that we will be with our counter-parties that we've signed these CDA agreements, and we will be moving forward with construction and export, if we can have a market-based type of approach like Brookings suggested.

Operator

And we'll go next to Greg Gordon with ISI.

Greg Gordon - ISI Group Inc., Research Division

I have a question on LNG. Can we talk a little bit about the cost of capital filing? Specifically, we know that you've asked for ROE at the level that you put in your presentation. But I think, when we look at the trends for authorized ROEs nationally, an ROE of 10.9% or 11% is a bit above the national average, but more importantly there are some cases pending in California, namely, a water case or 2, where it looks like the ROEs could come in demonstrably lower than that. What gives you comfort that in your dialogue with the regulators you are going to be able to articulate the facts that's supportive of ROEs closer to what you filed for?

Debra L. Reed

First of all, let's take a water case as a good benchmark example. If you look at, historically, the differential between energy companies and water companies and ROEs authorized, it is about 100 basis points. So an authorized ROE of water companies in the 10-range would definitely be equivalent to, for energy companies, in the 11-range based upon historical precedent. The risks seen in those businesses are quite different, and so there's always been a much higher ROE granted to the energy companies. I would also say that California have seen the need to have ROE's that will allow us to attract the capital necessary to make the kinds of investments that the State is expecting, in terms of clean energy, renewables, having the 33% renewables contracted, having the balance sheets to support that, all of the infrastructure, the pipeline safety investments that we will be making. And so, I think that, if you kind of look at those facts, I think they do support an ROE that's in the 11-range.

Operator

And we'll go next to Ashar Khan with Visium.

Ashar Khan

My question has been answered.

Operator

And we'll go next to Mark Barnett with Morningstar.

Mark Barnett - Morningstar Inc., Research Division

A quick question on the GDF SUEZ agreement, too many earnings calls to see it, the announcement, yet, but is that also going to include a future equity investment from GDF?

Debra L. Reed

Yes. The way that all the parties that we worked with and signed agreements are, we're looking at making this a joint venture, where we would have most likely 50% ownership, and they would, the 3 parties, have a sharing of 50% ownership. And all of those parties have expressed an interest in taking equity. We haven't negotiated the final terms of that, but that is what's envisioned.

Mark Barnett - Morningstar Inc., Research Division

And then, I guess, given the approval last month of the memo account, is any of your pipeline CapEx, has any of that timing shifted a little bit closer into 2012 or are you still kind of comfortable with where you presented at the analyst day?

Debra L. Reed

Yes. We're still looking at 2012 being largely about doing the engineering studies and the planning for the construction, and expecting that the expenditures would be somewhere in the $100 million range for 2012.

Operator

And we'll go next to Michael Lapides with Goldman Sachs.

Michael J. Lapides - Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Research Division

Two questions, one related to the utilities. Utilities posted great quarters, especially SDG&E, and especially given the challenge of not having a rate order in hand. If we go back and look at PG&E's first quarter from last year or Southern Cal Edison from first quarter this year, both had pretty significant challenges in terms of year-over-year earnings at the utility. Can you talk a little bit about what the drivers were at SDG&E, was it all just AFUDC, was there a significant change in the O&M level, and significant change in the cost structure, et cetera?

Debra L. Reed

The main driver at SDG&E, Michael, is definitely the AFUDC from Sunrise. That is a significant issue. What I would say though is that both utilities were trying to operate at the revenue requirement that we had last year, because, until you get a decision, that's the prudent thing to do. And so we've had a history of trying to operate our businesses until we get the CPUC decision at the level that has been previously authorized and raised.

Michael J. Lapides - Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Research Division

The other thing on the Renewables side here in the U.S. Can you talk about where you see -- what RFPs are kind of out in the market and therefore publicly known for either solar or wind in the desert Southwest, I'm thinking some of the bigger ones.

Debra L. Reed

Mark, do you want to -- the renewable RFPs in the desert Southwest, and what are some of the bigger ones that are out right now?

Mark A. Snell

Well, I guess we wouldn't really talk about the ones that we're currently bidding on. But there are still some several fairly large ones that are out there, and there are some that have been in process for a while that people have had trouble now meeting some of the requirements, and they're coming out for additional opportunities. But we don't, probably, the numbers that we presented at the analysts conference for our fleet are likely to be what we've have been for the rest of the year. We haven't seen -- I don't think anything that would come up now would have happen at least until the following year.

Operator

[Operator Instructions] And there are no further questions in queue. At this time, I would like to turn the conference back over to Debbie Reed for any additional or closing remarks.

Debra L. Reed

Well, thank you, all, for joining us this morning for our first quarter call. If there's any follow-up questions you have, please contact Rick or Scott or Victor, and have a really nice day.

Operator

That does conclude our conference. You may now disconnect.

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