Thursday, July 9, 2009

Commodities, Cap and Trade, and Natural Gas

There's a lot of hubbub about H.R. 2454, otherwise known as the "cap and trade" program. My main criticism is that is that cap and trade programs require inter-country cooperation to be effective, but inter-country enforcement mechanisms have not been clearly defined or tested. What will the U.S. do, for example, if China "cheats" on carbon emissions? China, after all, uses mostly coal for its energy needs. (Perhaps we'll have some version of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), but for carbon checks.) Another problem: although heavy-handed enforcement will strain relations between countries, a heavy hand is necessary to convince everyone to play by the rules.

In any case, I jumped into commodities earlier this week (a few days too early), and am happy to hold UNG, FCG, WMB, WPZ, GSG, COP, and DBC. If approved, President Obama's cap and trade program will reduce coal and encourage more natural gas and solar power. Thanks to environmentalists, America may finally be able to reduce its use of "dirty" energy sources, including oil.

As I've already pointed out, the "cap and trade" program is not perfect--the government may end up artificially increasing certain commodity prices by transferring subsidies from coal to other energy sources. Even so, I'd rather subsidize clean energy than environmentally harmful energy sources.

Owners of Market Vectors Coal ETF (KOL) might want to assess the impact of the cap and trade program very carefully. Although it provides some exposure to Chinese coal companies, all coal companies will remain an uncertain bet as cleaner energy becomes more viable. After all, why would power plants use coal when they can use natural gas? From the EIA:

In the electric power sector, natural gas is an attractive choice for new generating plants because of its relative fuel efficiency and low carbon dioxide intensity. Electricity generation [will account] for 35 percent of the world’s total natural gas consumption in 2030, up from 32 percent in 2006.

You might still be wondering, "Why natural gas? Why not nuclear, wind, or solar companies?" Elementary, my dear Watson--it's the simple process of elimination.

First, America has far more natural gas than petroleum. Many Americans already know we have more natural gas than oil, but I am very surprised to see so many people overestimating cap and trade's foreign policy implications. If you think switching to natural gas will crush foreign regimes, don't kid yourself--the Middle East still has the world's largest supply of natural gas. I am willing to bet that in ten years, Russia and Iran spearhead a new natural gas "OPEC." That's okay--America won't ever be as dependent on natural gas imports as it has been on petroleum imports. In fact, Canada will probably be the largest foreign beneficiary of increased natural gas use.

Second, wind power looks D.O.A.--T. Boone Pickens, its most visible proponent, has scratched the idea, at least in Texas. That's not a good sign for the Pickens Plan.

Third, solar power is more complicated than it looks because it requires lots of empty land to put all the solar panels a power plant requires. Solar panels are most effective when powering relatively small structures, like houses and outdoor emergency phones. In any case, I don't know of any solar power plants that can supply power on the same scale as traditional power sources. (I am not an expert on solar power, so I appreciate being corrected if I am wrong.) At least for now, solar will not displace natural gas, but will probably work in conjunction with it.

Fourth, nuclear power suffers from a major image problem. Chernobyl will force legislators to hedge their bets on other energy sources and/or slowly adopt nuclear power.

I hope I've adequately explained why I believe natural gas has a bright future. If we're weaning ourselves from "dirty" energy like oil and coal, and solar and wind power have years to go before effective nationwide use, what's left? Aside from nuclear power, which suffers from a NIMBY problem, there's just natural gas. (Please don't get me started on ethanol--the idea of driving up food costs to get oil is untenable--and both Alan Greenspan and Charles Munger agree.)

Mind you, I do not expect natural gas prices to rise immediately. Even if the Senate approves the cap and trade bill, also known as H.R. 2454 (American Clean Energy And Security Act of 2009), it will take years for demand to dent the current supply of natural gas.

Why, then, am I buying natural gas and commodities companies now? Two reasons: one, current natural gas prices seem relatively low; and two, if Congress removes certain subsidies for natural gas companies or does not supply them with adequate incentives, companies will halt or reduce natural gas drilling, which will reduce supply and increase natural gas prices.

You might also wonder why I own ConocoPhillips (COP), an oil company. Petroleum will continue to be an important resource (petrochemicals, etc.), and many oil companies also have natural gas interests. In addition, oil companies sell an essential product and pay high dividends (unusual in our current era of 1% money market rates). I also don't mind buying anything Warren Buffett owns.

It is important to note that I hold all of my commodity-based shares in a retirement account to minimize taxes. Owning UNG in a regular account creates tax implications because of its partnership structure. I am not certain, but apparently, UNG does not pay out distributions, but imputes income to its investors anyway. Any more information on UNG's tax issues would be appreciated. (Feel free to leave a comment, especially if you're a CPA.) UNG's tax structure doesn't affect me because I hold my shares in a retirement account, but I am still curious.

Regardless of whether H.R. 2454 passes, the future of the energy industry is clear: the winner will be either nuclear or natural gas. I am choosing natural gas because it has a higher chance of widespread adoption. Fairly or not, nuclear power will always be linked to Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Davis-Besse, which reduces its appeal.

Disclosure: I own UNG, FCG, WMB, WPZ, GSG, COP, and DBC. I have recommended to family members to sell KOL if they own any shares.

Disclaimer: The information on this site is provided for discussion purposes only. Under no circumstances do any statements here represent a recommendation to buy or sell securities or make any kind of an investment. You are responsible for your own due diligence. To summarize, I do not provide investment advice, nor do I make any claims or promises that any information here will lead to a profit, loss, or any other result.

Update: Of the 20 million barrels of oil consumed each day, 40 percent is used by passenger vehicles, 24 percent by industry, 12 percent by commercial and freight trucks, 7 percent by aircraft, and 6 percent in residential and commercial buildings. (Source) Cap and trade will first impact the 30% slices (industrial and commercial/residential building) of the energy consumption pie, because not enough automobiles currently run on natural gas.

Bonus: below is an interesting link from the State Department on energy use:

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