Pipeline Cashflows Continue Higher

COVID accelerated a trend already in place in the U.S. energy sector, which is to grow Free Cash Flow (FCF) rather than production. Chevron’s Investor Day last week promised 10% annual increase in FCF through 2025. This return to shareholder-friendly metrics is attracting investors – including recently Berkshire Hathaway.

Midstream energy infrastructure has grasped this as readily as their upstream E&P customers. Full year 2020 earnings have been reported. The companies in the American Energy Independence Index, the best representation of the North American pipeline industry, grew FCF to $25BN last year. This is almost three times their 2019 performance, a result that seemed implausible a year ago when COVID drove panic selling.

Continued reductions in growth capex are the reason – Distributable Cash Flow (DCF), equivalent to cash from operations minus maintenance capex, was flat last year. Pre-COVID, DCF was expected to increase from $54BN to $60BN, but Enbridge (ENB), Enterprise Products Partners (EPD), Kinder Morgan (KMI) and TC Energy (TRP) each came in $1BN or more below target. However, capex reductions were widespread during the year, and these largely offset the drop in DCF which is why FCF came in around target.

The result is the bridge chart shown below, which continues to track a path towards higher FCF for the industry. On current trends we should exit 2021 with a FCF yield of over 10%, more than twice the S&P500. Having rallied so far, one might conclude that the sector’s mis-valuation prevailing last year has been eliminated. The FCF yield shows this isn’t the case.

The biggest single variable in the industry’s capex figures is Enbridge’s planned replacement of Line 3. This is a 1,000 mile crude oil pipeline originally built in the 1960s that runs from Edmonton, Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin. Canada has long struggled to find economic ways to get its crude oil to market. The proposed new pipeline will more than double capacity, from the current 370 thousand barrels a day (MB/D) to 760 MB/D. ENB recently raised the estimated total cost of this project by almost $1BN, to $7.3BN.

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Disclosure: We are invested in all the components of the American Energy Independence Index via the ETF that ...

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