Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Pipelines in the Spotlight

There aren't many parts of the energy value chain that normally receive less attention than pipelines. Energy production, whether from oil and gas fields, nuclear power plants, or rapidly growing renewable sources usually garners far more attention for the impressive technology and capital involved. By contrast pipelines are long-lived, relatively low-tech and low-return assets that often seem invisible to those outside the industry. Sunday's announcement of Kinder Morgan's bid for El Paso Corp., uniting two pipeline giants into a $94 billion enterprise, reminds us just how big this low-key infrastructure can be. This deal also signals important shifts underway within the fossil fuel industry. Just as the rise of wind and solar power requires an upgraded electricity grid, changes in the sources of our oil and gas have big implications for the networks required to bring these fuels to market.

As an article in today's Wall St. Journal states in its title, the Kinder Morgan-El Paso deal heralds the arrival of the Age of Shale. It simultaneously validates the potential of US shale gas resources and points to a new set of growth opportunities created by unconventional oil and gas resources that couldn't have been produced a decade ago, either economically or technically. This couldn't have come at a better time for the pipeline industry, when its bread-and-butter business of transporting refined products to distribution terminals is reaching a plateau, as developed-country markets exhibit Peak Demand and biofuels output grows. That's a big change from when I worked in the "mid-stream", which includes pipelines, distribution terminals and trading. Then, the challenge was keeping conventional crude pipelines full as domestic onshore oil fields depleted, while expanding capacity to transport gasoline, diesel and jet fuel to meet steadily rising demand. Today the advent of shale gas, shale oil and oil sands crude coincides with the development of a much more diverse energy market.

Recent changes in the economy also make pipelines, which used to be considered dull, more interesting as an investment. With interest rates historically low and equity markets weak and volatile, the modest but stable returns that midstream oil and gas assets offer must seem a lot more attractive than they did prior to the financial crisis, particularly when managed in tax-efficient structures such as the master limited partnerships that Mr. Kinder helped pioneer. And those same low interest rates make the capital required for new private-sector infrastructure projects more affordable. Such projects also look doubly beneficial in the current environment of high unemployment, providing both large numbers of jobs in the short term, during construction, and ensuring the reliable energy supplies needed for sustainable job growth once the economy hits its stride again.

Of course pipelines aren't always dull, particularly when they are the focus of controversies such as the current one concerning the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline. But what many of that project's critics, including celebrities who appear to know less about such facilities than most of my readers, have missed is that despite rare, unfortunate accidents, pipelines remain the best and most efficient means of transporting large volumes of fuel over long distances. Unless you honestly think we can do without these fuels entirely--a scenario that I am convinced will not be realistic for at least another few decades--then it makes little sense to shun pipelines and thus proportionally increase the quantity of fuel that will be carried by truck, rail and ocean-going tankers, all of which are also subject to accidents. Like all infrastructure pipelines require proper maintenance, but they are not inherently risky.

No bet on the scale of the one Kinder Morgan is making can ever be a sure thing, and I can think of several things that might go wrong, topped by a double-dip global recession that lasted for years and sapped both energy demand and gas drilling economics. However, this deal taps into a number of converging trends supporting a US natural gas boom that is part and parcel of the potential global Golden Age of Gas that the International Energy Agency recently described. I wouldn't be surprised to see more transactions along these lines.

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