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Refiner Sweet Spot to End?

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One of the few industry bright spots in the energy sector in the quarter past were the refiners. After getting beaten down in November and December on news that the north-flowing Seaway petroleum pipeline would be reversed to help relieve the glut of crude oil in Cushing, OK, refiners had a strong January and February as North American production outstripped pipeline capacity from North Dakota to Texas while the pipeline reversal was still being engineered.

Barron's ran a story last weekend about how this trend was soon due to reverse as the Seaway reversal soon became fully operational this quarter. The pipeline runs a 500-mile stretch from Freeport, Texas on the Gulf coast south of Houston to Cushing and currently has a capacity of 150,000 barrels per day.

The joint operators Enterprise Products Partners (EPD - Free Report) and Enbridge (ENB) initially announced in November plans to boost capacity to over 400,000 barrels by 2013 and last week they said they expect improvements to allow over 800,000 barrels per day in 2014.

And the whole idea of eliminating the glut of landlocked West-Texas Intermediate light sweet crude oil (WTI) got a boost last week when President Obama did a photo-op stop in Cushing to vow his support for another south-flowing pipeline: the southern leg of the Keystone XL.

Many Republicans felt this was merely a publicity stunt to draw attention away from his rejection of the northern portion of TransCanada's proposed link that was routed through an environmentally-sensitive area of Nebraska -- especially when the existing project to move oil from north to south didn't need Presidential approval, and wouldn't be complete until 2014, therefore having no effect on gasoline prices in the short-run.

Refining Margins to Get Squeezed.. But How Soon?

In the Barron's piece, "Going with the Flow," Bill Alpert suggests that "the end of inland refiners' cost advantage will hurt the shares of HollyFrontier (HFC - Free Report) , Western Refining (WNR), and Delek US (DK)."

Alpert goes on to suggest that once these two south-flowing pipelines are fully operational, North American crude production from Canada and the Bakken shale will narrow the spread between WTI and Brent crude. Currently, refiners benefit greatly as they buy crude, often below WTI prices, and market gasoline based on Brent prices which have averaged about $20 higher.

But until these pipelines are fully operational, midwest refiners may continue to reap the benefits of abundant North American crude and steady-to-rising WTI-Brent prices. Here are the results of a basic stock screen I ran this morning on using simple parameters and not even looking for refiners:

Screen Criteria

Market Cap greater than $2 billion

Percentage increase in 2012 earnings estimates greater than 10%

Forward P/E less than 15

Zacks Rank of #1 (strong buy) or #2 (buy)

(Click on image to enlarge)

Note that these simple parameters gave us three refiners -- HollyFrontier, Tesoro (TSO), and Marathon Petroleum (MPC) -- because they are strong candidates to have both low valuations and recently rising earnings estimates. And MPC, the refiner spinoff of Marathon Oil Corporation (MRO - Free Report) last year, may be the most intriguing idea here as they have leverage to something the other refiners don't: a pipeline. While most refiners discussed have between 75% and 100% exposure to inland crude, MPC is a 1/3 owner of the giant Capline oil conduit.

Even More Liquidity

This was actually the most interesting and fresh piece of information from Alpert's article: the possibility of a third pipeline that could be reversed to carry crude and possibly Canadian oil sands from central Illinois to Texas.

The Capline has pumped offshore oil north from Louisiana's Gulf Coast to the oil hub of Patoka, Ill., since the 1960s. Alpert offers this dramatic quote to illustrate the potential for change in global oil markets if North American supply is fully exploited:

"Opening all these pipelines will relieve the stocks at Cushing and wipe out the Brent-WTI spread," says a money manager who is short the refiners, and who asked that we not use his name.

Granted, this is a bold prediction by an unnamed trader who would benefit financially from the result. Still, the idea is worth considering as a potentially far-reaching event for energy markets.

Alpert also explains the Capline infrastructure and potential well...

"Tracking the Mississippi River for 630 miles, the Capline was built more than four decades ago to carry imported and offshore crude oil north from the Gulf of Mexico to Midwest refiners. The 40-inch wide pipeline delivered 1.2 million barrels a day at its peak. But Capline throughput lately is averaging 15% of capacity, and demand got so thin a couple of weeks ago that the Capline's operator, Royal Dutch Shell (RDSA), shut it off on alternate days. The glaringly underutilized pipeline is 54%-owned by the master limited partnership Plains All American Partners LP (PAA - Free Report) , and 33%-owned by Marathon Petroleum (MPC)."

MPC missed earnings last quarter by 250%, coming in at a loss of 21 cents vs consensus of -$0.06 as the company adjusted to higher crude prices in 4Q 2011. But since then, analysts have been boosting estimates and the stock became a Zacks #1 Rank on April 3. Here are the EPS tables for MPC:

A Glut of Moving Pieces

The energy patch has been a tough place to make money this year as it was nearly the worst-performing sector of the past quarter.

Last week I made a video titled What's Wrong with the Energy Trade? where I examined many of the moving parts, often feeling like the proverbial blind man trying to describe what an elephant is.

But I felt a little better after reading the Barron's article when I came across this quote from a subject matter expert...

Supply-demand forecasting is perilous, cautions refinery-stock analyst Chi Chow, of Macquarie (US) Research. "In theory it's a very simple analysis," says Chow, "but to figure out all these moving pieces is a very difficult task."

Perilous as it is, I don't think I'll ever give up my fascination with energy as the "trade of the decade." Hopefully I learn enough to bank some serious profits in the process.

Here's a link to the Barron's article which also has an excellent graphic of the pipeline map, crude supply projections, and refiner "margins per barrel," including those for CVR Energy , the current target of hostile takeover king Carl Icahn.

Kevin Cook is a Senior Stock Strategist with

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