Beyond the Keystone XL Pipeline

Political wrangling continues over the Keystone XL project, a proposed TransCanada  pipeline from Alberta's oil sands to the U.S. With all the publicity around this controversial project, it's easy to get the impression that TransCanada's fortunes will rise or fall with the Keystone XL pipeline. But is that really the case?

On June 18, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted in favor of the project. However, according to a Washington Times report, the powerful Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, is not expected to allow the full Senate to vote on the measure. And so it goes. But for TransCanada and its master limited partnership, TC Pipelines , there's much more to life than Keystone XL.

The whole picture
Together, the Keystone XL and Bakken ML pipeline projects represent $5.4 billion, or a little more than a seventh of TransCanada's total $36 billion in planned capital expenditures over the next few years. And that's not even considering the company's existing infrastructure.

TransCanada has one of North America's largest natural gas pipeline networks. Its 42,500 miles of pipeline carry 14 billion cubic feet per day of gas, or about 20% of demand in the region. It's the largest private sector power generator in Canada, with 20 plants producing 10,800 megawatts of electricity. Its 2,600 mile crude oil pipeline network carries 530,000 barrels per day, or about 18% of western Canada's oil production. Judging by its $4.2 billion worth of capital expenditures in 2013, the Keystone XL delay hasn't stopped the company's growth.

Courtesy of TransCanada.

Keystone XL is meant to bring crude from Alberta's oil sands down into Nebraska, on to Oklahoma, and eventually to the Gulf Coast refineries. But if politics prevent that oil from coming south, there are other options. TransCanada's $12 billion Energy East project will be moving some of that oil east instead. This will involve the conversion of 1,860 miles of the Canadian Mainline from natural gas to crude oil, and the additional construction of 930 miles of crude pipeline.

The Kitimat connection
TransCanada's other major option could be to send the oil west to the Pacific Coast for shipping to Asia. Enbridge Energy  is already heading in that direction. The Financial Post reported that on June 17, just a day prior to the U.S. Senate committee's vote on Keystone, the Canadian government granted conditional approval to Enbridge's Northern Gateway project. This pipeline would carry up to 525,000 barrels of light and heavy crude from Alberta's oil sands to a new super-tanker port at Kitimat, B.C. A twinned line would import 193,000 barrels per day of oil-thinning condensate. Enbridge has said the Northern Gateway could be up and running by late 2018.

Kitimat is becoming a popular place. It's also the site of a proposed LNG liquefaction facility, a joint project planned by Chevron and Apache. And this just happens to be the terminal point of TransCanada's proposed Coastal Gaslink pipeline, part of a $9 billion project to move liquefied natural gas, or LNG, to the Pacific Coast. The pipeline would begin in TransCanada's existing NGTL system, the network of natural gas pipelines serving the industries and homes in the growing Alberta oil sands area.

All this raises an interesting possibility. TransCanada's NGTL network and proposed Coastal Gaslink project would form a connection all the way from the Alberta oil sands to the export facilities at Kitimat. These are all gas or LNG pipelines, but it's not a stretch to imagine that the company could lay crude oil pipeline along those routes as well, terminating at the same super-tanker port Enbridge would use for Northern Gateway. Thus, if U.S. policy blocks the southern route, TransCanada may be able to follow the lead of Enbridge in shipping to Asia.

A Foolish look forward
Don't avoid TransCanada just because of the uncertainty of the Keystone XL project. Its revenues, margins, and earnings are all climbing, and the slide above illustrates how TransCanada expects to nearly double its EBITDA to about $9.5 billion by 2020. MLP investors looking for high current yield and tax benefits have a good candidate in TC Pipelines, for which TransCanada is the general partner. TC Pipelines' distributions have been increasing every quarter for over a decade.

Politics affects business, so keep an eye out for game-changing events. A turnover of control in the U.S. Senate could remove obstacles to Keystone XL. But if that doesn't happen, keep things in perspective. Single projects don't generally make or break a good company, so always try to look deeper than the latest headlines. 

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Scott Percival has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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