Attention Investors: Opportunity for an oil change

What would you say about an investment opportunity where your product is four times cheaper than the commodity it is trying to replace and there are 77 million potential customers waiting to use it?

Does that sound like something that you would like to put your money into? Well that’s the opportunity that awaits anyone willing to invest in the infrastructure and technical changes needed to substitute natural-gas-based ethanol for foreign-fuel-based gasoline in our cars.

A full-fledged prospectus was presented this month by Miles Light, professor at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, in a report called “Natural Gas Based Liquid Fuels: Potential Investment Opportunities in the United States,” written for the recent Goldman Sachs Energy Summit.

Professor Light lays out the situation in very clear terms: “Low natural gas prices and new technology present an opportunity to market and sell liquid fuels in the form of ethanol and methanol to U.S. consumers. Per unit of energy, oil is almost four times more expensive than natural gas. This implies a potential arbitrage opportunity to convert natural gas and natural gas liquids into a liquid fuel. In the U.S., 14.5 million vehicles can currently utilize ethanol fuels. These are the so-called ‘Flex Fuel’ vehicles. Another 16.1 million FFV ‘Twins’ can utilize ethanol with a software upgrade, and 46.9 million conventional fuel vehicles can potentially be converted for $150-$250 each. In all, this presents 77.75 million light duty vehicles, or 31.8% of the national light duty fleet, that would potentially purchase natural gas liquid fuel, if prices were attractive.”

You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase, “If we can capture just 2 percent of this market…” Well, this is it. There are opportunities up and down the line, from auto mechanics performing flex-fuel conversions on conventional engines to major corporations building plants to convert natural gas to ethanol.

What Light is talking about here is the wholesale substitution of a portion of our natural gas resources for the oil we import in order to run our transportation sector. True, we’ve cut down on imports so they now make up less than half of our consumption for the first time since the early 1990s. But what people are missing is that we still pay the same amount for that oil because the price keeps rising. This continues to put a $380 billion dent in our trade balance every year — not to mention that much of this money goes to countries that actively support hostile actions against America and its friends and allies around the world.

So what would it take to make this transition? There’s certainly been a lot of activity to date. However, most of it has concentrated on utilizing compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquid natural gas (LNG). T. Boone Pickens’ Clean Energy Fuels is in the process of building a “CNG Highway” to service long-haul trucks from coast to coast. He’s already completed the first leg from Los Angeles to Houston. Those big 18-wheelers have room for the larger gas tanks and travel fixed routes along the Interstate Highway System that can be serviced by relatively few filling stations.

But passenger vehicles are a completely different matter. They travel everywhere and would require a whole new national infrastructure to fill their tanks. The auto companies have already offered a few CNG models but they haven’t sold well. It’s the chicken-and-egg problem — people won’t buy cars before the stations become common and the stations won’t be built until there are enough cars on the road.

With ethanol, however, there is already an infrastructure in place. The country is presently outfitted with 2,394 gas pumps dispensing E85, a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. (The gasoline is there just to start on cold mornings.) Most of these are concentrated in the farm belt but they’re starting to make their way into major cities on the East and West Coasts as well.

The point is this: these stations have been set up to handle corn ethanol. This is the result of the 35-year government effort to promote biofuels. But Light suggests that these stations could just as easily dispense ethanol made from natural gas. No new technology would be necessary, nor would it require any special permission from the government. (Methanol, which is a little easier to synthesize than ethanol, has a greater toxicity and would require some additional approval from the Environmental Protection Agency.)

So according to Light, this is where the investment opportunities lie. The conversion of natural gas to ethanol is the first and most important step, but Coskata, Inc. already has a working facility and Celanese Corporation is converting coal to ethanol in Indonesia. Light estimates that, at current and foreseeable prices, the return on investment could be as high as 46 percent.

Then there are all the intervening steps. “Alongside the core ethanol production opportunity, there are several related supply-chain developments projects, such as production facility development, ethanol fuel marketing, fueling station upgrades, blending facility expansions, and vehicle update kits,” he writes. All are well within the range of private investment. No government subsidies or mandates would be required.

In other words, the conversion of significant portions of our auto fleet to natural gas presents a whole world of opportunity just waiting for imaginative, ambitious investors to take advantage.

Anybody interested?

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