This article is part of Our Top 5 Energy Stocks for 2012 series.
It is impossible to read the news without coming across something related to natural gas these days: We're in a boom, folks. Production is up across the country and companies are working around the clock to secure land rights and drill wells. There is so much gas underneath the earth that some operations are flaring it off in places like the Bakken Shale because there is simply nowhere to put it all.
The price of dry natural gas (methane) is the lowest it's been in since 2008, and while producers continue to pursue it, margins are slim and it's becoming increasingly difficult to generate profits without producing a significant amount of natural gas liquids and oil as well. If only there were a way to play the natural gas boom that wasn't tied directly to the commodity's price -- investing in a company that transports natural gas, for example.
Enter one of the Fool's Top Energy Stocks for 2012: Kinder Morgan (NYSE: KMI) .
The upside to pipelines
America's largest midstream energy company is positioned perfectly to play the current energy boom. Pipeline transmission rates are set and controlled by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and do not fluctuate with the price of oil and natural gas, ensuring reliable income for the Houston-based company that currently operates more than 37,000 miles of pipeline across North America.
This isn't to say that Kinder Morgan does not benefit from high commodity prices, as much of the energy being developed in the U.S. and Canada right now comes from unconventional sources that are prohibitively expensive to produce if the prices of oil and gas drop below a certain point.
The other upshot to operating a regulated pipeline business is that competing pipelines must be approved by regulators, and will only earn such approval if there is a demonstrated need, establishing a pretty safe economic moat for Kinder Morgan.
KMI's growth is driven by its general partner stake in Kinder Morgan Energy Partners (NYSE: KMP) , the master limited partnership that holds most of the Kinder Morgan assets. Ninety-eight percent of the distributions KMI receives come from KMP, though the company also has a 20% stake in the Natural Gas Pipeline Company of America. With that in mind, let's take a look at what KMP expects from 2012:
$4.4 billion generated in business segment earnings; $560 million more than 2011.
Cash flow in excess of $50 million after distributions.
Distribute $1.7 billion back to limited partners.
Invest $1.7 billion in expansions and small acquisitions.
It is a short list, but right away the emphasis on growth and shareholder return, two priorities held dear by almost all investors, is clear.
Aside from its general partner role in KMP, KMI owns its incentive distribution rights, as KMP increases its payout to investors, KMI's share increases as well. Ultimately, KMI shareholders earn a smaller absolute dividend compared to KMP shareholders, but it grows much quicker.
In 2012, KMP expects to pay out $4.98 per unit, up 8.3% from last year. KMI will pay a dividend of $1.35, up 16.4% over last year.
El Paso deal
The big news for Kinder Morgan in 2011 was its announcement of a bid to take overEl Paso (NYSE: EP) . In the midst of a second request by the Department of Justice, the merger still has some antitrust regulatory hurdles to clear, but both companies expect the deal to be approved in the second quarter of 2012.
Once approved, KMI will take control of El Paso's assets. Current plans are to divest El Paso's exploration and production operations and drop down (sell) the midstream assets to KMP and El Paso's pipeline MLP El Paso Pipeline Partners (NYSE: EPB) .
The merger and subsequent drop downs are expected to generate positive dividend accretion for KMI, but is not factored into any of the companies' 2012 projections. This means what looks to be a great year for Kinder Morgan may end up being even better than expected.
Kinder Morgan has two other large projects under way right now, one in Canada and one in the U.S., that should boost future returns.
The company is building a $130 million condensate processing facility in the Houston Ship Channel. Expected to come online in 2014, the project was designed to exploit the glut of petroleum condensate coming in from the Eagle Ford Shale. The facility is the perfect complement to the new pipeline Kinder Morgan expects to begin operating in the second quarter of 2012, which runs from the Eagle Ford to Houston.
North of the border, Kinder Morgan is making a play to take advantage of increased Alberta oil sands production by adding seven oil storage tanks to its terminal in Edmonton. The project is slated for completion by 2013 and will cost the company $210 million.
Kinder Morgan has experienced 15 years of continuous growth and the future remains bright. CEO Richard Kinder is one of today's elite business leaders and is committed to running excellent companies, putting emphasis on controlling costs and protecting his shareholders' investments. The combination of excellent management and growth potential makes Kinder Morgan, without a doubt, a top stock for 2012.
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