7 Stocks, 3 Different Ways to Cash In on Natural Gas

It's hard to tell whether natural gas drilling is coming or going these days. The most popular method of extraction, hydraulic fracturing, is highly productive but also highly controversial. It's so productive, and gas so plentiful, that supply outpaces demand, resulting in depressed prices domestically -- a stark contrast to foreign markets, which can't get enough of the stuff.

There is no need to dismiss the entire industry, however, because outside of drilling there are different ways to think about investing in natural gas: liquefied natural gas exports, pipelines and gas processors, and leaseholders.

Angle 1: LNG export
Early last month, Dominion Resources (NYSE: D) began the regulatory approval process for a Department of Energy permit to export liquefied natural gas from its terminal on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Once the DOE signs off, Dominion will also need approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. It expects to begin exporting in 2016.

Dominion joins Cheniere Energy (AMEX: LNG) in its quest to bring liquefied natural gas export facilities to the continental U.S. Cheniere has a $6.4 billion project in the works on the Gulf Coast that has been approved by the DOE but still awaits clearance from FERC. The company expects to begin exporting in 2015.

Angle 2: Pipelines/gas processing
Last month, TheNew York Times reported that oil companies drilling in North Dakota's Bakken oil field burn off excess natural gas in a process called flaring; some readers were appalled at the waste of resources. It is not in the companies' economic best interest to bring the product to market, so they flare it instead.

As recently as 2007, Whiting Petroleum (NYSE: WLL) used to flare 80% of the gas released by its oil drilling. Recognizing that the gas contains lucrative amounts of propane and butane, the company began to invest in pipelines, in addition to building and expanding two gas processing plants. The company has cut flaring to 20% and is working toward a zero-emission standard.

Angle 3: Leaseholders
Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK) is the second-largest natural gas producer in the U.S. after energy behemoth ExxonMobil. Despite low natural gas prices, American companies continue to lust after opportunities to drill, so land that sits on popular natural gas plays like the Utica Shale can often be more lucrative in the short term than the gas trapped in the rocks below.

Chesapeake is the largest landholder in the Utica Shale, controlling 1.25 million acres of the 108-million-acre region. A stake that size allows Chesapeake to drill but also to monetize a significant portion of acreage through joint ventures or other means.

Plenty of companies are looking to acquire acreage in the Utica, and Chesapeake should have no problem making a profit. The company estimates it cost about $1.5 billion to $2 billion to build its Utica position. For comparison, Hess paid $1.34 billion for 185,000 Utica acres, a significantly smaller position.

Investors intrigued by Utica land sales should also consider EV Energy Partners (Nasdaq: EVEP) . The company controls 780,000 acres, and at the end of September, CFO Michael Mercer said it was "likely" to sell some.

Foolish bottom line
The natural gas industry will be an exciting one to watch over the next few years. Interested investors should keep an eye on drillers and gas prices, but also watch for LNG export facilities to come on line, oil producers to make the most of excess gas, and shale play acreage to increase in value.

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