Martin Hutchinson: I’m not a knee-jerk hater of the Obama administration. But the President’s decision to reject the Keystone pipeline was one of his worst. Aside from creating jobs, the pipeline would have decisively swung U.S. energy supplies more toward domestic sources and those of our friendly neighbor Canada.
Granted, the pipeline wouldn’t create energy independence but it would mean importing less oil (NYSEArca:USO) from the Middle East.
It is the kind of switch that could help save the U.S. large amounts of blood and treasure in the future.
Because in practice, our dependence on Middle Eastern oil forces us to incur huge foreign costs – after all, we just finished paying $800 billion for the Iraq war. As you know, that is just a drop in a much larger bucket.
Add in the human losses and the costs are incalculable.
In this case, caring less about what goes on in the Middle East – other than ensuring the safety of our ally Israel – would save us all those costs, and get us that much closer to balancing the damn Federal budget.
So let’s just say shelving the Keystone pipeline wasn’t exactly the president’s finest hour.
Bullish on Canadian Oil Sands Stocks
However, while the Keystone Pipeline continues to twist in the wind, investors shouldn’t ignore the Canadian energy sector – especially the Athabasca tar sands.
Because with oil prices on the rise, these Canadian resource plays are likely to offer investors serious returns.
Here’s why: oil prices are headed higher.
In fact, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s recent promise that U.S. interest rates will remain near zero until the end of 2014 has given a huge boost to commodity and energy prices.
What’s more, the $600 billion injection into EU banks and the promise of another $600 billion this month just adds more fuel to the inflationary flames.
Eventually, oil prices will get so high that they will cause a recession all by themselves, just like they did in 2008. But remember, that happened at $147 per barrel, so we’ve still got quite a way to go. This time oil could get closer to $200 per barrel.
That’s bullish for places like the Athabasca tar sands.
On the flip side, if oil prices were low, you would need to look at companies exploiting areas with the lowest extraction costs like the Middle East or Nigeria. At lower oil prices, the temptation for the local governments to play games with foreign oil companies would be modest, so if you had access to cheap supplies you’d do very well.
In this scenario, high-cost supplies such as those in the U.S. oil shale and Canadian tar sands would struggle.
However, in today’s environment of high oil prices, political stability is much more important than cost. The higher the price, the more low-cost supplies in unstable areas are subject to expropriation by the local politicians.
Conversely high-cost supplies in stable areas are highly profitable, and would attract most of the new investment.
How to Invest in the Athabasca Tar Sands
The Keystone pipeline decision is certainly a pity for the United States – though it may be reversed after the November elections.
However, it doesn’t matter much to the Alberta oil producers.
They already have an alternative project, the $5.5 billion Enbridge pipeline, which will move oil to the Pacific Coast, where it can be shipped to the growth markets of China and East Asia.
So these capacity expansions can be carried out just as fast as the Keystone pipeline, with little or no risk of creating a glut that can’t be readily moved to market.
The Athabasca tar sands have estimated reserves of at least 178 billion barrels of oil, but Shell Canada estimates their capacity at 2 trillion barrels, enough to supply the United States for 250 years.
That’s why Chinese companies are interested in Canada – they have invested $15 billion in Athabasca tar sands projects over the last two years.
For an overall spread of investments in the Canadian energy business, investors should consider the Claymore/SWM Canadian Energy Income Index ETF (NYSEArca:ENY). This fund invests in the 34 stocks of the Sustainable Canadian Energy Income index, most of which are not listed in New York.
It’s an easy way to invest in companies listed on the Toronto Exchange – especially if your brokerage doesn’t deal in foreign exchanges. [Related: PetroBakken Energy (TSE:PBN), Canadian Oil Sands (TSE:COS), Crescent Point Energy (TSE:CPG), Baytex Energy (TSE:BTE)]
The index includes tar sands, conventional oil, and uranium mining, which is another attractive sector that Canada dominates.
The ETF has a value of $114 million and an expense ratio of a moderate 0.7%. It also pays an attractive dividend yield of 2.83%.
However, the best major tar sands player is Suncor Energy (NYSE:SU), which is currently more attractively priced than its big competitors, trading at 10.6 times 2012 earnings and 1.44 times net asset value, with a dividend yield of 1.3%.
Suncor just announced its fourth quarter earnings, with earnings per share (EPS) up 10% from 2010 and operating earnings up 75%, primarily due to higher oil prices. For the year, Suncor’s earnings of $2.74 per share were up 12% on the previous year.
Given its growth and leverage to oil prices, Suncor is very attractively valued.
So while the president seems intent on turning his back to our neighbors to the North, investors shouldn’t follow his lead.
Canadian oil sands stocks are undoubtedly one of the best opportunities on the market.
Martin is a Contributing Editor to both the Money Map Report and Money Morning. An investment banker with more than 25 years’ experience, Hutchinson has worked on both Wall Street and Fleet Street and is a leading expert on the international financial markets. At Creditanstalt-Bankverein, Hutchinson was a Senior Vice President in charge of the institution’s derivative operations, one of the most challenging units to run. He also served as a director of Gestion Integral de Negocios, a Spanish private-equity firm, and as an advisor to the Korean conglomerate, Sunkyong Corp. In February 2000, as part of the Financial Services Volunteer Corps, Hutchinson became an advisor to the Republic of Macedonia, working directly with Minister of Finance Nikola Gruevski (now that country’s Prime Minister). The nation had been staggered by the breakup of Yugoslavia – in which 800,000 Macedonians lost their life savings – and then the Kosovo War. Under Hutchinson’s guidance, the country issued 12-year bonds, and created a market for the bonds to trade. The bottom line: Macedonians were able to sell their bonds for cash, and many recouped more than three-quarters of what they’d lost – to the tune of about $1 billion. Hutchinson earned his undergraduate degree in mathematics from Cambridge University, and an MBA from Harvard University. He lives near Washington, D.C.
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