Will the U.S. Knock Off This Middle Eastern Leader in LNG Exports?

Will the U.S. Knock Off This Middle Eastern Leader in LNG Exports?

Qatar represents an anomaly of sorts. Located in the Middle East on the eastern border of Saudi Arabia, it is blessed with 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. Its neighbors are blessed with crude oil. Qatari oil reserves are virtually nil. Playing the hand they were dealt, Qataris have been looking for ways to capitalize on their natural gas reserves. LNG exports were an obvious choice.

ExxonMobil collaborated with the national Qatari energy company, Qatar Petroleum, to build 12 of its 14 LNG export terminals. These give Qatar an export capacity of roughly 77 million metric tons per year. Of this 77 million metric tons, ExxonMobil accounts for 61 million metric tons.

Not only has ExxonMobil helped with exports, the company has collaborated on a refinery producing a variety of natural gas related products such as butane, naphtha, and kerosene. Separately, ExxonMobil also collaborates with the Ras Laffan helium project, slated to produce 10% of the world's helium.

These ventures with ExxonMobil have fared better than some others undertaken by Qatar. In 2006, Sasol broke ground on a gas-to-liquids plant. The idea was to leverage Sasol's knowledge of the Fischer-Tropsch process to make oil from natural gas. The plant currently produces over 32,000 barrels a day of various petroleum products.

The plant is economical but had large start-up costs. A subsequent larger plant built with Royal Dutch Shell suffered substantial cost overruns. Other gas-to-liquid plants were cancelled.

The turnaround story continues
In the United States, multiple natural gas producers would love to dethrone Qatar. One company well positioned, in terms of size and assets, is Chesapeake Energy . This company made a major change early in the year by booting its CEO, Aubrey McClendon. The new CEO seems focused on profitability rather than growth, which should pay off for investors in 2014. The stock did well in 2013, but that may have been more from McClendon's departure than natural gas revenue.

What does Chesapeake offer investors in the year to come? Two things. First, over 15 trillion cubic feet of proven gas and equivalents reserves. These are concentrated in the Marcellus, Utica, and Barnesville shale gas plays. Proven reserves are growing -- which isn't to downplay the oil production. 2013 ended with the Eagle Ford play producing 9,500 barrel equivalents a day, and Chesapeake aims to grow that further in 2014.

Second, fiscal discipline. The company's latest investor presentation outlined reductions in capital expenditures, focused drilling and production on its best assets, a 20% reduction in exploration and production related staff, and improved drilling efficiencies. On top of this will be continued sales of non-core assets and reductions in debt. The company reports over $4 billion in debt coming due in 2017. Don't be surprised to see that reduced.

Still a low-cost producer with more cost reductions to come
The sweet spot: It's about the best way to describe Cabot Oil & Gas' natural gas assets in the Marcellus Shale. The company operates 15 of the 20 most productive wells in the Marcellus and, overall, produces about 1.3 billion cubic feet a day of natural gas. Even better, production costs are so low that Cabot can make a profit even at recent low gas prices. Best of all, Cabot's production costs will likely decline as the company expands its use of multi-well pads.

However, the corporate culture of improving efficiency may be the biggest intangible Cabot offers investors. Not just multi-well pads, but increased use of natural gas as a fuel for its drilling operations, using compressed natural gas as fuel in its vehicles. Cabot in no way seems content to rely on its low production costs to carry it. The company continues to find ways to improve profitability.

Final Foolish Thoughts
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. exported over 1.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2012. Proven reserves of dry natural gas are over 334 trillion cubic feet at the end of 2011. With the latest approvals of natural gas exports to countries without a free-trade agreement, the U.S. will have an export capacity of 312 million metric tons per year.

This compares to Qatar's 77 million metric tons. Of course, there's no guarantee that the U.S. will actually export all of its capacity. However, with the likes of Chesapeake and Cabot constantly growing production and reserves, the U.S. could very well soon become king of the LNG export hill.

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