by Travis Johnson, Stock Gumshoe | September 23, 2008 10:40 am
If you’re on the email lists for Stansberry or Agora or a half dozen other investment newsletter publishers, you’ve probably seen this ad — it’s for the S&A Oil Report, and it tells us that, for a wee subscription fee, the editor of that newsletter will tell us the secret that he didn’t tell Brian Sullivan at Fox News.
“‘What I didn’t tell Fox News about the biggest money-making opportunity in America for the next 12 months’
~Matt Badiali, U.S. Geology Veteran”
Well, Matt didn’t tell me what his secret is, either — but thankfully, he wanted to entice you to subscribe — so he included just enough juicy detail in his ad that the Gumshoe will do some digging and get the name of this stock for you. Stay with me for a minute and I’ll share.
Here’s some of the ad, in case you missed the excitement:
“On July 28th Fox News asked me to talk about the biggest U.S. natural resource discovery of the last 32 years.
“I told them everything I know… EXCEPT for the one piece of vital information that can make you a fortune in the next 12 months.
“He saw an academic paper I wrote about a unique piece of land in the Appalachian Mountains…
“A 54,000 square-mile swath stretching from West Virginia to New York…
“Brian wanted me on the show because of my experience as a geologist. I’ve studied this area for my entire academic and professional career. I’ve probably done more research on this land than anyone else in my field. In fact, you could say, I’m the “unofficial expert” on this Appalachian discovery.”
So … this is all about the Marcellus Shale, which is a big geological formation that lies under the Appalachian mountains and in those environs, roughly running from West Virginia up through Western Pennsylvania. And the sexiest part of it right now is definitely Pennsylvania, since new technologies in the last ten years have made accessing that gas feasible and affordable.
And Badiali does probably know quite a bit about it — to say that he has done more research on this land is a reality-stretching boast, he hasn’t even really published much as an academic and hasn’t finished his PhD as far as I can tell … there are plenty of geologists who have studied this area rigorously, and Pennsylvania is no stranger to the energy industry. The first oil boom in the United States started in Pennsylvania well over 100 years ago … it’s not a coincidence that you lubricate your engine with “Quaker State” oil. But yes, he has studied geology and he has written a lot about shale oil and gas for investors for many years. If you want a real on-the-ground scholar of this stuff, look for someone like Terry Engelder at Penn State, who released a report in January that stoked interest in the Marcellus for a lot of people. But of course, he isn’t a subscription-hawking newsletter editor, he’s a professor, so he won’t tell you about any companies you should invest in.
Badiali will — and don’t worry, we’ll get to the name in a minute.
Part of the tease for this ad is that Badiali says there’s a big release of information coming from Pennsylvania about the potential of the Marcellus Shale. He goes through the fact that the USGS did their big survey of Marcellus in 2003, and that while other states release this data almost instantly, Pennsylvania lets you keep it under wraps for five years … which would bring us to 2008.
I don’t know exactly what this potential data release is — or why it would be shocking or exciting for investors. The man I mentioned above, Terry Engelder, has been studying the Marcellus with a colleague from a New York university and released some pretty incredible information in January, and in more detail at a petroleum geologists conference in the Spring. Here’s a quote from Engelder’s website:
“The researchers said that America (U.S., Canada, and Mexico) currently produces roughly 30 trillion cubic feet of gas annually. Engelder said the technology exists to recover 50 trillion cubic feet of gas just from the Marcellus, making it a super giant gas field.”
That’s enough excitement for me — and I don’t suppose that there are big numbers of investors who will be surprised to hear that the Marcellus Shale is potentially a big deal. It’s possible that there’s some other kind of data coming out, or that Badiali was referring to this data that has already been released and just thinks there will be more detail, or more public attention coming. I have no idea.
He also quotes the Houston Chronicle says the results will stir a “…frenzy, unlike any seen in decades.”
As far as I can tell, that quote is actually from the New York Times — but it was for an article about the Marcellus Shale (you can read the article here if you like). Maybe it got republished in the Houston Chronicle, not that it matters much.
There’s more — Badiali gets a bit long-winded in in describing how important natural gas is (electricity and home use, and potential transportation use, and like many others he tries to piggyback on the attention that the “Pickens Plan” has gotten).
But really, he just wants to help you get rich on the land rush — and to do so by buying a company that’s already active in the area. Here are the clues he provides:
“They are experienced in the Appalachian area. They’re headquarters are in Pittsburgh. Their management team averages 24 years each drilling wells in and around the Appalachian Basin.
“And they’ve been quietly snatching up available wells in the gas-rich Marcellus.
“In fact, they operate over 6,600 wells in the Appalachian basin currently…
“How much natural gas is on their land? Only they know, but when the survey is announced in the coming days, the whole world will know about their potentially lucrative holdings.”
Badiali tells us that “the key to making money in natural gas is to own the companies with the most valuable land.” And in this case, the company to own is …
Atlas Energy Resources (ATN)
This is actually a pretty interesting little company — they are one of the big players in the Marcellus Shale, but they’re much smaller than Range Resources or Chesapeake or the other big gas companies who are working there and in similar shale fields.
And they’re structured sort of like a Master Limited Partnership — they pay a high dividend (a bit above 8% at the moment) that they’ve been raising consistently since going public a couple years ago. This is essentially an investment partnership run by parent company Atlas America (ATLS), which is used to fund investment in their natural gas properties. ATLS, in addition to owning about half of ATN, also manages a pipeline network, which you can also buy, called Atlas Pipeline Partners (APL, which has a bigger dividend) — this is particularly interesting because part of the problem in the Marcellus is that there isn’t enough of a distribution network yet to handle the massive volumes of gas that the companies believe they can extract. That they already have access to a pipeline network is potentially advantageous, as is the fact that their pipeline partner is investing to build the pipes to their projects so they don’t have to put it on their balance sheet.
So — is this something you want to buy? Well, it seems to me like a relatively low risk play if you believe in the potential of the Marcellus Shale and, perhaps more importantly, if you believe that we’re near a bottom in natural gas prices. If natural gas returns to the “old normal” of prices below $4, I can’t imagine that many of these deep shale formations are going to be particularly profitable — and the Marcellus shale is among the deepest. If you don’t care about the dividend, you might also want to take a look at ATLS, the parent company — and if you only care about the dividend, you might prefer to look at the pipeline partner, APL, which yields almost twice as much. ATN seems like the preferable vehicle to me, a good and growing dividend that’s covered fairly well by cash flow, and with good potential for growth if their drilling programs are as successful as many folks think.
As to that growth potential, here’s a quote from the CEO on the latest conference call:
“We’ve now drilled 78 vertical Marcellus Shale wells and one horizontal, with 69 already producing into a
pipeline. And we plan to drill at least 80, that’s 80, additional vertical Marcellus Shale wells in the next 12 months and at least a further 24 horizontal Marcellus wells by the end of 2009 …
“These future wells, especially the horizontal wells, which will be drilled through the Company’s own account as part of joint ventures involving industry partners, these future wells should contribute substantially to continued increases in Atlas Energy’s production and reserves.
“In fact, our daily production from the Marcellus Shale already exceeds that of every other company operating in this play, approaching nearly 20 million cubic feet per day of gross production at the end of the quarter, including gas produced for our managed programs.”
Atlas Energy is a popular pick — it has gotten attention from Jim Cramer in the past, and it’s well off its highs of $45 that it hit late in the Spring (you can buy it today for about $27). There are some people who believe that natural gas supplies are so high that the prices will continue to suffer, but in general I’d bet on the long term price of natural gas — it has too many advantages over coal and oil to fall too far for long, I think. I could be wildly wrong, however.
If you want to read some more about the Marcellus Shale, there’s an interesting article here from geology.com — though they did spell Engelder’s name wrong. And if you want some more boosterism about the stock, you can read this note from a Stockpickr contributor, and there are several blogger fans over at SeekingAlpha.
And while Atlas is banking on the Marcellus Shale for the lion’s share of any big boost to profits, they do have other operations — they are drilling in shale in Tennesse (the Chattanooga shale, I think), and they have an office in Traverse City, Michigan that’s working on developing some Antrim Shale properties. If you’re going to argue, as some folks do, that Atlas is severely undervalued and has a big, unappreciated chunk of net asset value hidden underground that’s not accounted for in the share price, most of that “hidden” value is in the Marcellus. The analyst from Wachovia included this valuation in a report last Spring:
“Our valuation range is based on a blend of (1) our NAV estimate of ATN’s proved reserves in Appalachia and Michigan ($16 per unit), (2) a price-to-cash flow multiple of 8x on ATN’s fee-based business ($9 per unit), and (3) $29-32 per unit of option value related to the Marcellus Shale. Risks to the units trading below our valuation range include uncertainty surrounding Marcellus Shale drilling, dependence on investment partnerships to fund drilling programs, and a decline in commodity prices.”
Before you get too excited, they pegged a mid-$50s price target based on that info, and the shares have fallen hard and fast since then, probably in large part because the commodity price of natural gas continued to collapse.
For a bit more on the negative side, you might want to think about the environmental challenges — with the Pennsylvania economy suffering the Marcellus shale players are probably in a pretty sweet spot, since they bring in a lot of money for the economy, but we’re talking about a fairly invasive and aggressive drilling ramp-up statewide, from many different players, so it’s always possible that there could be a backlash from residents or environmentalists. A fair amount of this drilling is being done in forests and in farmland, but Pennsylvania is certainly much more densely populated than some other shale areas, like the Bakken (though as far as I know the Texans seemed to do cope OK with the Barnett Shale that sits under Forth Worth).
It’s a promising sounding company that I might have to look into a bit more — I do like the high and rising dividend, and I have been toying with the idea of getting exposure to natural gas again (I held some Chesapeake Preferred stock for a couple years, but sold quite a while ago and don’t own any company in the space at the moment except for Loews, which has a small shale gas E&P division).
Whether it’s a good call for you … well, you know the drill: That’s your decision to make. It is, after all, your money. If I decide to get into this company (even if I decide to buy I would have to wait at least three days because of my disclosure rules), I’ll post a note at the Irregular site.
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