Well, as I noted in the Daily Update email on Friday, the Thermogenic Oil teaser from the Stansberry folks has garnered more interest from my readers than anything else in recent months — so at the very least, that copywriter deserves a raise.
And I also said I’d try to take a closer look and confirm whether my suspicions are correct — so that’s what I’m doing this morning. The ad is coming in both as a loooong email teaser and as a video pitch, which I’m seeing a lot more of lately from all the Agora-affiliated publishers. And perhaps the fact that it’s for one of the more expensive newsletters out there helps to make it seem like a sexier idea, I dunno (the pitch this time is for Stansberry’s Phase 1 Investor, their “upgrade” subscription that has a list price of $5,000, now edited by Frank Curzio).
So I’ll just warn you up front that there are a lot of folks who are seeing the ad, and the companies they’re pitching are tiny ones — even if I say something bad about the stocks below, just the additional attention from yours truly could easily be enough to move the shares if we get a bunch of folks looking for the stock.
That’s nothing new, of course, and I think most of my readers expect as much, but I think it’s occasionally worth reminding you — in an interesting side note, industry insider J. Christoph Amberger (or at least “former insider,” I haven’t seen his stuff lately and he’s newly a novelist as well), who helped to build Taipan for years, also speculated in a recent blog post about whether folks like us are unwitting patsies in the teaser promos for these expensive letters, driving up the price so the editor can claim great performance — he uses the example of that Gold Sands teaser that this same newsletter ran last month. He’s an interesting guy, and his blog is worth a read if you like the “inside baseball” stuff about this industry.
But I’ve gotten off track again already (again, nothing new there, either) — what the heck is Thermogenic Oil, and how do you invest in the companies who produce it?
The ad is a looooong one, as noted, but here’s the basic pitch:
“There’s a ‘new oil’ bubbling underground in America. It’s not a hydrocarbon (like regular oil or natural gas). It’s not radioactive, either (like uranium). Fully harnessed, this ‘new oil’ could light huge swaths of the country for several thousand years. Already it has the full backing of the U.S. government, and is powering cars, hospitals, schools, military operations… even entire cities. As it enters the next stage of development, early investors could make 800% or more.”
Sounds pretty cool, right? Well, the description of this “new oil” goes on for far longer, talking about the many places where it’s found in the US, the great potential, the clean nature of it … here’s a little edited extract just to give you a taste:
“What’s so special about ‘Thermogenic Oil?’
“Well, like regular petroleum, it’s capable of producing incredible amounts of energy… to fuel cars, to power factories… and to heat homes and schools. But there are quite a few differences too.
“‘There’s no smoke. Very little noise,’ said the director of one of America’s leading “Thermogenic” developers. ‘People don’t even know it’s here.’
“Also, it’s much more abundant than regular crude… especially here at home….
“It is estimated that simply by tapping 2% of this source in America, we could produce 2,000 times the country’s entire annual energy consumption, according to the [MIT] report….
“Another thing to keep in mind: ‘Thermogenic Oil’ CANNOT spill. It’s not a hydrocarbon like oil or natural gas… nor is it radioactive like uranium. So it doesn’t pose a public policy risk or a PR nightmare….
“It’s no wonder some of the smartest and most influential investors and firms have ponied up for stakes in ‘Thermogenic Oil’…
“Vinod Khosla (the cofounder of Sun Microsystems), and Steve Cohen’s S.A.C. Capital Advisors. Even the richest man in America (and our most successful investor) Warren Buffett…
“And why Google – one of the world’s most influential and successful businesses – has quietly been pouring millions into this new energy source…
“In short: Like most radically superior and transformative ideas, this one is catching on everywhere, at the same time…
“And not just in the U.S…
“In France, of all places, the country plans to increase its reliance on this energy source 6-fold by 2020.
“In fact, they’re gearing up to tap a huge ‘Thermogenic oil’ deposit – about 5,500 feet underneath one of their largest airports. According to Wired Magazine, this will reduce the airport’s ‘fuel needs by thousands of tons a year.’
“Canada has discovered it may be sitting on ‘hundreds, even thousands’ of easily accessible deposits, according to the Toronto Sun. Companies are “sprouting up everywhere” to tap them…
“And China, not to be outdone, has rapidly developed a small test stage ‘Thermogenic oil’ facility, which supplies a portion of the energy needs of a small municipality of roughly 1,000. So far, it’s been a big success. Just a couple weeks ago, the Chinese Government signed an agreement to pour more money into ‘Thermogenic Oil’ exploration and development.”
Sounds incredible, no? Then they get into stuff that serves both to make it sound more mysterious and technical, and to give a bit of a red herring for the quick-scanning gumshoes out there …
“In short, it’s a superheated, energy-enriched fluid, which gets its core energy from minerals located deep within the earth’s crust—like potassium-40 and something called thorium-232.
“If you’ve never heard of Thorium, I’m not at all surprised…
“Named for the Nordic God of Thunder, this shiny silver metal is one of the biggest secrets of the energy business. As Wired magazine puts it, Thorium was ‘one of the great what-if technologies of the 20th century.’”
And the thorium bit goes on for a while — I’ll spare you more excerpting, it’s all about how the cleaner and safer thorium reactors weren’t built because of uranium’s value as a weapon. And that got a lot of my readers excited and searching for thorium stocks … but the answer to this one, as we expected, is far simpler. The “superheated, energy enriched fluid” is …
So yes, this is yet another teaser about geothermal energy, and the companies who develop it. Thorium isn’t irrelevant, but the thorium reactor we’re talking about here is the planet itself — the uranium, thorium and potassium in the earth, which I’m told are our most abundant radioactive elements, are apparently (I’m no geologist, just did a little reading up on this over the weekend) part of what keep the planet from cooling off as quickly as would otherwise have been expected.
And that heat produces hot spots, typically near the edges of the tectonic plates (ie, “earthquake country”) … and sometimes very hot spots, like volcanoes. That heat can be — and is, in some places — tapped for either heating or power generation. Geothermal power generation works much like any traditional generator, it’s just that instead of getting the heat from burning coal they get it from superheated water pumped out of the earth (in some places the hot water is already there and can be tapped, sort of like an oil well, in others water is injected into hot spots in the earth to be heated and returned), and that’s where most of the interest lies (since this is a generally clean and carbon-free electricity, though geothermal has other challenges). Geothermal heating has been around far longer, from bathing in hot springs to contemporary heat pumps that use the earth’s constant crust temperature down just a couple hundred feet, or, as in the case of Orly Airport in Paris, actual underground hot water reservoirs that are tapped for commercial-size heating systems. (That Wired note is here, if you’re curious — I didn’t check to see if they actually built the system or have it operational now as planned.)
The catalyst that they site for investing in geothermal energy is the government — big federal spending on “green” power initiatives, including both loans and grants, are expected to make more and more geothermal projects feasible (and profitable). Geothermal power has been used for decades in the US and elsewhere around the world, but as far as I know it’s still very much concentrated in the “easy” spots, like the Geysers in Northern California and probably the world’s most famous geothermal “hot spot,” Iceland.
The “geothermal juniors,” however, are certainly out there — and like any other junior natural resources stocks, they’re mostly devoid of profit and built on exploratory dreams, though there are some real energy producers in the bunch and there have been aggressive, hyped up teasers from investment newsletters for probably every single geothermal stock that’s publicly traded. Just last year one of the highest profile stocks, Raser Technologies (RZ), won the coveted Gumshoe “Turkey of the Year” award.
And the ad, wisely, admits as much — but says that although many of these companies are junk, they’ve found the best of the bunch for you. So which geothermal stocks will they tell you to buy? Like with the Gold Sands teaser a while back, they say that they’ll release the names to their premium subscribers sometime soon, and discuss it all in a members-only conference call on August 23 … let’s see if we can’t identify which companies they’re teasing, shall we?
This one is not quite as plainly simple to identify as the gold sands teaser was, but we do get some clues. First we hear about where they got the idea from, which is part of why they seem to like it so much:
“It came to me through two of our closest contacts in the energy business. My guess is that both of these men are worth more than $100 million.”
“… a close friend of our research firm, a very wealthy investor who cued us in to this phenomenon, said it best: ‘The current US administration has done two extraordinary things. They have offered grants of up to 30% of project expenses. We calculated that the government would give companies as much as 27% of the capital budget with no equity interest. At the same time, they will guarantee up to 80% of allowable project expenditures. Now that’s interesting because if you add up 27% and 80%, it produces a rather exquisite fraction.’”
So that tells me that one of their friends in the energy business is Rick Rule, since that quote is from him and he’s both a widely-followed natural resources investing guru and a big fan of (and investor in) geothermal energy in recent years. You can see the interview that includes that quote here if you’re curious — also from that interview is what I think is a nice, common-sense (though obviously bullish and one-sided) way to think about geothermal as an alternative energy source, here’s that quote from Rule:
“I differentiate economic alternative energy and uneconomic alternative energy. The alternative energy investments that intrigue me are geothermal and hydroelectric which are, by and large, industries that could exist and thrive without subsidy but, because they are green energy, receive subsidies at any rate.”
I don’t know that many of the new or small geothermal projects can be profitable without subsidy right out of the gate, but certainly a lot of the established plants are. So Rick Rule is one of the experts, and I assume he’ll be on this conference call, too … if I were to place a bet I’d guess that Doug Casey might be the other, but that’s just a wild guess — no clues really given about the other guy.
So … we know one of the experts, which geothermal stocks are they touting?
“We didn’t find these two tiny companies through process of elimination. We learned about them through a couple friends of the firm – two deeply connected and highly successful gentlemen we’ve known for years.
“These men are private and discrete about their personal finances, but we suspect both are worth one hundred million dollars or more… and have made the bulk of their fortunes through the energy and resource markets.
“In other words, when they share an idea… we definitely pay attention.
“The companies they told us about… well, you just wouldn’t track them down on your own. For starters, very little information exists on either one of them…
“Yahoo! Finance doesn’t have a profile for either company.”
That’s kind of an odd clue … even before digging much deeper I’d guess that these companies are probably listed in Canada, as most junior resource companies are, and Yahoo Finance doesn’t carry profiles for any Canada-listed companies. But still, point taken.
Some more clues, please?
“One of these companies is founded and run by a fellow who has turned every company he’s ever been part of into gold…
“Why did he start his current company – the tiny ‘Thermogenics oil’ firm we’re recommending?
“Very simply, in his own words, this “is a business I thought I could make our shareholders lots of money in.”
“After vetting this firm, and examining its ‘Thermogenic’ properties… we have no doubt this to be true.
“This company has a handful of ‘Thermogenic Oil’ sites on the cusp of production… and nearly a dozen properties they’re exploring. To fast track their search, they’ve managed to secure valuable data from the US Department of Energy, the US Geological Survey, and two universities regarding the formations on these properties.
“Already, these guys have begun to produce ‘Thermogenic Oil’ at two locations, one of which is used to power a California-based Aluminum smelter corporation—one of the largest in the world… in addition to powering some of one city’s utilities…
“The other location is currently providing energy to one of the nation’s oldest utilities, which feeds electricity to a 54,000-square mile area in America’s fastest growing state.”
OK, so we can now be definitive about one of these stocks — this is undoubtedly Magma Energy (it is indeed listed in Toronto, at MXY, and MGMXF on the pink sheets — low volume trading in both places, which means that just a few new investors getting excited could easily move the shares).
That’s the one I had guessed on Friday evening, when I sent you to my earlier article on Magma Energy after a teaser for one of Doug Casey’s newsletters — that article is half a year old now, and the shares are down considerably.
If you’re interested in the details, their two locations are in Iceland and in Nevada — the latter being “America’s fastest growing state” and home to Magma’s Soda Lake plant (and several of their “advanced” development projects), and the former being home to by far their biggest project that, in part, powers an aluminum smelter owned by a Calfornia company (Century Aluminum). The Iceland plant is a possible future subsidiary called HS Orka, which actually operates two geothermal power plants, Magma is a part owner of HS Orka already (which is the largest private company in Iceland, now that most of the banks have been reduced to small shells of their former glory), and has a deal in place with their partner to take over the rest of the company.
The biggest snag seems to be some push-back from the Icelandic government about private ownership of their natural resources, and fear that the deal won’t go through or, worse, that the country will force out Magma entirely — I don’t know what’s likely, but there’s an interesting article on the situation here if you want to start a little digging. Iceland’s most famous export, Bjork, also voiced some concerns about Magma’s move and the company tried to respond with this letter.
And Magma’s CEO, Ross Beaty, is indeed the “everything he touches turns to gold” guy — and he did say something similar to the quote about “this is an area where I thought we could make investors some money.” The most prominent recent success of his was Pan American Silver, and all of his previous company-building efforts were in the mining business, there’s a good article on him in Forbes from earlier this year if you want to hear the story of his move to geothermal.
Magma is controlled by Beaty, who together with the Sitka Foundation owns around 45% of the company, and AltaGas and some Saudi interests also own significant (~5%+) chunks. There are about 250 million shares outstanding, so at just over a buck a share you can do the math — it’s a small company. They can argue that they’re making a profit now on an EBITDA basis, but they’re borrowing and investing to expand so they’re not really booking income at the moment. I expect they are looking to benefit from US incentives, but for now they’re extraordinarily dependent on Iceland for the bulk of their energy production, wiht a small amoung coming from Soda Lake in Nevada and the hope that newer projects in Nevada and in Chile will be developed and start adding to their generation capacity in 2013 or 2014.
So, if you don’t mind taking the Iceland risk this is one of the fairly diversified geothermal developers, and Ross Beaty is certainly a “name” in the natural resources business (as is Rick Rule), so perhaps this one might appeal to geothermal-minded investors — I don’t know whether the catalyst of government funding is going to move the stocks higher within a year, or whether the Iceland risk is going to turn out to be anything “real” in the end, but the shares are certainly trading at a discounted price now relative to the big boost they got last Fall following their IPO, so if geothermal again gets the lusty attention of the mainstream money media it wouldn’t be surprising to see these shares do very well thanks to their relatively high profile among resource investors.
So what is the other stock they’re touting in this ad? It doesn’t get nearly the attention of the first, and we don’t get as many clues, but let’s dig into what we have:
“The second company (which is still very small) may be sitting on the mother lode of “Thermogenic Oil.”
“They’ve secured the land rights to a large collection of potential hotspots throughout the United States. On one of these properties, there’s a 5,000-acre slice containing a Thermogenic “anomaly” the company is now currently exploring in earnest.
“These guys are taking full advantage of the Government boondoggle at hand – including the DOE’s loan guarantee and the ridiculous tax grants…
“What we really like about these guys though is they’re early adapters who have already perfected this technology. They’re ALREADY beginning to produce ‘Thermogenic Oil’ at one location. And – get this – within the next two years, their thermogenic operational capacity is expected to increase by 1,270%.
“On top of that, even if they don’t find a single additional ‘Thermogenic Oil’ deposit (which is unlikely)… we estimate their total capacity has room to grow 8,990%!”
I can’t match those clues up precisely with any of the other significant “junior” geothermal companies, though there are a few that would have to be the short list for this one — Nevada Geothermal, US Geothermal, and Ram Power.
Nevada Geothermal (NGP in Canada, NGLPF on the pink sheets) is producing at its first site, with output of roughly 38MW so far, and their expected output increase as they bring new projects online over the next few years is impressive, but it’s not 1,270% (they hope to be producing 137 MW by 2013. They also do have a new, promising area that they’re actively exploring with a larger-than-expected thermal anomaly, the Edna Project, but that’s about 7,000 acres — could be a match since they say it’s a 5,000 acre slice, but certainly not as definitive as I like to get.
When looking at the industry broadly, I can’t help but think of Nevada as the potential buyout candidate, given the consolidation that seems likely, and as US Geothermal (this next one) as the “discount” play.
US Geothermal (HTM) is also a power producer, one of the early producers from this newish crop of geothermal juniors, with their project at Raft River in Idaho, and they do have expansion plans at Raft River and a couple other sites under development now as well — HTM was a beneficiary of some significant newsletter excitement years ago, and I think it was the first geothermal stock I ever wrote about as it shot up to $4 or 5 for a brief while in 2007 before falling back down, and recently dipping further still to about 75 cents a share. This is now a tiny stock again, and arguably its assets are worth more than the market cap (it’s trading at a discount to book value, and I’d bet that the exploration, feasibility studies, and construction at the site ended up costing more than $50 million). That’s not to say they’ll ever become profitable, of course, though they are moving ahead with expansion plans, but this one now stands out to me as relatively inexpensive from just a quick look at their financials.
And the one that I think is most interesting as a solution I’ll save for last — Ram Power (RPG in Canada, RAMPF on the pink sheets). Ram Power is a mash-up of several geothermal juniors, including Western GeoPower and Polaris, and now they’ve also agreed to take over Sierra Geothermal. If you looked down on the geothermal development landscape from 10,000 feet, you might suppose that it’s becoming a game for the larger players now, and that Ram Power and Magma Energy are the best-connected little guys who are trying to consolidate the industry before the big power companies get involved. Ram Power was founded just a couple years ago by an established insider, the former VP at Ormat, which is the largest “almost pure play” geothermal company in the US (ticker ORA, Ormat owns some sites and builds plants for others, and also develops cogeneration projects, among other things). Ram has an interesting hodgepodge of projects, including a producing plant in Nicaragua and advanced projects in Nevada and Califoria (including at the Geysers, where they’ve aded to their land holdings).
So those are some possibilities for you, to which I suppose I should continue to add Raser (RZ) even given its poor, overhyped performance as a “Turkey” in recent years (I think it’s been by far the worst performer in this bunch, going from $10 to 34 cents and a possible delisting in two years despite their self-promotion skills, but they’ve all had some really weak stock recently).
There really aren’t that many compelling “junior” geothermal stories out there right now beyond this relatively short list, though maybe the whole sector is so beaten-down that it’s worth a basket approach if you like the clean energy investment exposure they might provide. These are all risky small companies that are nowhere near sustainable profitability, and most of them are reliant on just one or two projects as their main revenue drivers for the foreseeable future, so betting on a single stock in this bunch is certainly a signficant gamble no matter which one it is — though geothermal enthusiasts like Rick Rule would probably tell you that the sector is so primed to do well that you almost can’t miss by picking any of ‘em. You could also move up the food chain to a stock like Ormat, which has had its own disappointments and is arguably pretty expensive (and is much bigger, over a billion dollars in market cap), but has been sustainably profitable and, if there are a lot of new geothermal projects developed, will probably cash in as a contractor helping to build these plants even if they don’t hit home runs with their own projects.
Geothermal has not gotten nearly as much attention in the pages of the Gumshoe over the past year as it did in the couple years prior, but perhaps that’s a good thing — I don’t know if this new teaser campaign will serve to reignite all the geothermal stock tips, or if the sector will really ever cash in and bring riches to the investors in these relatively early-stage companies, but I’d be delighted to hear what you think, just share your thoughts with a comment below.
Oh, and if you’re still focused on the thorium bit and are bored with geothermal, you could always take a gander at the Patrick Cox teaser pick of Lightbridge (LTBR)– they’re tiny and unprofitable too, but are probably the folks pushing hardest for thorium nuclear reactors using, naturally, their patented designs. It has nothing to do with this particular teaser, of course, but is certainly among the more storylicious of the “story stocks,” with no profits and precious little in the way of revenue since their IPO about four years ago.