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Keystone Cops Create Controversy, TransCanada Builds Wealth

By David Dittman on June 22, 2012

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Last Friday, Jun. 15, 2012, the US Dept of State filed a plan to prepare a new supplemental environmental impact statement for TransCanada Corp (TSX: TRP, NYSE: TRP) proposed Keystone XL pipeline, an extension of the existing Keystone Pipeline System that would carry Canadian oil sands crude from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin and Bakken crude from the Williston Basin in North Dakota and Montana to existing pipeline facilities near Steele City, Nebraska, for eventual transport to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico in Texas.

After the project was rejected by the State Dept on Jan. 18, 2012, TransCanada proposed a new application with a different route that avoids the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, which includes the Ogallala Aquifer. The latest version of TransCanada’s has Keystone XL following a revised route from the Canadian border in Phillips County, Montana, to Steele City. TransCanada has split the pipeline plan into two separate pieces and says it will build the second segment, from Cushing, Oklahoma, to the Gulf Coast of Texas, as an independent project.

A comment period on the proposal began Jun. 15, 2012, and will continue until Jul. 30, 2012.

The State Dept said its study would focus on the new Nebraska route but could also examine any other new significant environmental concerns. In a statement State reiterated that it would need until the first quarter of 2013 to complete the review process. By the time a final decision is made Keystone XL will be well into its fifth year of studies, according to TransCanada “the most extensive review for a cross-border pipeline ever.”

The State Dept’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) issued in August 2011 concluded that Keystone XL Pipeline will have “no material impact on the environmental resources along the route.” The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the US federal pipeline regulator and a unit of the State Dept, also noted that with all of the additional 57 safety measures that TransCanada has agreed to adopt this project “would have a degree of safety over any other typically constructed domestic oil pipeline under current code.”

TransCanada insists that this new review is simply “supplemental” to the many already conducted and does not represent a new undertaking of the whole project. Its position is that the new route through Nebraska is the only issue at hand. Republican politicians in the US are concerned, however, that State will cave to pressure from environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Foundation and use the review plan’s ambiguous language to begin a de novo study, which would likely result in further delays.

The new Keystone XL proposal is for a 1,179-mile pipeline (329 miles of which will be in Canada) to carry crude oil from a supply hub near Hardisty, Alberta, to the northernmost point of the existing Keystone Pipeline Cushing Extension at Steele City, Nebraska. The pipeline will have initial capacity of 830,000 barrels per day. Three hundred twenty-nine miles of the pipeline will be in Canada. It will cross the US-Canada border at Phillips County, Montana.

Because it crosses an international border TransCanada must first obtain a Presidential Permit from the State Dept, according to authority originally delegated to it by President George W. Bush under Executive Order 13337, dated Apr. 30, 2004. To issue a permit State must find that “issuance would serve the national interest.”

Keystone is an important project for TransCanada, but judging by headlines–and, somewhat to my shame–what you’ve read in this space you might believe it’s the Calgary-based outfit’s only asset with any potential or production.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

It happens to be extremely cheap relative to other pipeline owner/operators–fellow Canadian Enbridge Inc (TSX: ENB, NYSE: ENB), for example trades at a 4.56 times price-to-book value versus 1.91 for TransCanada–because of Keystone XL. But this continuing controversy provides a great opportunity to pick up a solid company at a significant discount to its long-term potential. And that’s whether or not its future includes a fully complete Keystone Pipeline System.

During the first quarter of 2012 TransCanada spent CAD13 billion on its various projects, including CAD7.8 billion overall on oil pipelines, CAD2.2 billion on natural gas pipelines and CAD3 billion on related power generation, which include the Bruce Power nuclear facility, and energy storage projects. Although earnings for the period slipped by nearly 15 percent to CAD0.52 per share on mild weather, cash flow ticked up by 3.2 percent and the payout ratio was a well-manageable 84.6 percent.

Demand for power in its home Alberta market is growing along with the still-robust economy in that province. Much of its power output–including all of it in Eastern Canada–is locked up under long-term contracts with financially secure off-takers such as the Ontario Power Authority, which limits its exposure to the volatile and right now cheap spot market.

Another key point, at least from the perspective of those who clamor about the dangers represented by Keystone XL–yes, we’re beating this horse again–is that TransCanada’s power plants and pipelines ran efficiently with a minimum of safety, environmental or unplanned maintenance issues. In fact, safety and stability are core strengths for TransCanada, which undergird its proven, long-term ability to bring new assets online in a way that boosts shareholder value.

TransCanada has no near-term debt obligations, making its balance sheet as safe and stable as the operations it supports. The stock is currently yielding north of 4 percent, and the payout rate has grown consistently over the past 10 years, from CAD0.25 per share per quarter in 2002 to a present CAD0.44 per share per quarter. TransCanada has never cut its dividend.

Short-term political controversy has made the stock cheap. Prescient investors–including those who appreciate the lead-pipe certainty that Keystone XL will get built no matter who occupies the Oval Office come January 2013 and become a cash-generating asset for this well-managed company–will take a hard look at it for long-term value.

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  1. avatar
    JAS Reply June 23, 2012 at 3:31 PM EDT

    Would it be wise to build a highway as long as the pipeline is being built at the same time As to move transportation in and out of the U.S.