CALGARY - Once upon a time pipeline companies were viewed as rather boring investments.
That's not the case anymore. The fate of the contentious Keystone XL pipeline could have an impact on investors' portfolios in more ways than one.
But John Stephenson, portfolio manager at First Asset Investment Management, says pipelines are still a better way to play the energy industry than investing in producers that are more exposed to commodity price swings.
"It's still a good bet," he said. "Is it as good a bet as it was before? No, because you do have some event risk and there are political issues for sure."
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In September 2011, the Dalai Lama was one of nine Nobel Peace Prize laureates who sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama urging him "to say 'no' to the plan proposed by the Canadian-based company TransCanada to build the Keystone XL, and to turn [his] attention back to supporting renewable sources of energy and clean transportation solutions."
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was among a group of Nobel Peace Prize laureates who signed letters to both U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, urging the men to stop the Keystone pipeline.
Gore has said it is essential to stop the Keystone pipeline because the tar sands oil it would carry is "the dirtiest source of fuel on the planet."
Actor and environmentalist Robert Redford recently added his name to the list of prominent individuals who are calling on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. In a video for The New York Times, produced with the Natural Resources Defense Council, Redford described the negative aspects of the proposed tar sands pipeline and said, "By deepening our reliance on oil, the pipeline would be a job killer." Redford has previously been vocal about calling for alternatives to oil. Writing last month for HuffPost, he said, "Let's build the next generation of energy efficient cars, homes and workplaces. Let's develop wind, solar and other cleaner, safer, more sustainable sources of power and fuel. Let's invest in high-speed rail and smart communities that give us better transportation options."
Actor Mark Ruffalo, famous for films like "The Kids Are All Right" and "Zodiac," is also an outspoken activist and opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline. Ruffalo said in a video for the Tar Sands Action group, "I've seen the kind of damage that out-of-control energy development can do to water and to communities near my own home, where fracking for natural gas is causing widespread pollution ... All these problems are connected -- we need to get off fossil fuels." In the past, Ruffalo has also expressed his ire for hydraulic fracturing natural gas extraction, or fracking. He told The Huffington Post, "The world is already leaving us behind. We're being left behind. America. Because the gas and oil industry has a strangle hold on us. And our politicians."
Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben has expressed strong disapproval for the planned Keystone XL pipeline. In fact, he was one of the first of over 1,200 who were arrested at the Tar Sands Action sit-in at the White House in August. Referring to his opposition to the Keystone Pipeline, McKibben told HuffPost, "The people who've carried this fight for three years are indigenous people on both sides of the border who have a huge stake in it because it's on their land, and farmers and ranchers from places like Nebraska," he said. He added, "It wasn't until I sat down and read Jim Hansen's analysis of how much carbon was in those things that I understood that this was not just a national issue, it's a global issue of the first order."
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, known for her role as Elaine on the popular sitcom "Seinfeld," has released a video urging President Obama to reject the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. Dreyfus recalls when Obama said "Let us be the generation that ends the tyranny of oil." But she says, "Big Oil is still pretty much running the show." She claims that by rejecting the pipeline, Obama has a chance to "make good on [his] word." Louis-Dreyfus asks Obama, "Denying the permit for a brutally stupid, money-grab like the Keystone XL pipeline is a no-brainer, right Mr President?"
Dave Heineman, the Republican governor of Nebraska, has officially stated that he opposes the Keystone XL project. As the governor of an agrarian state through which the pipeline would pass, Heineman expressed his concern for the pipeline's threat to Nebraska's vital water resources. According to the Associated Press, "Heineman said he supports pipeline projects but opposes the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL route." In August, Heineman sent an open letter to President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton urging them to "not allow TransCanada to build a pipeline over the Ogallala Aquifer and risk the potential damage to Nebraska's water."
Actress Daryl Hannah has also lent her voice to the movement against the Keystone XL pipeline. In August, Hannah was one of the over 1,200 people to be arrested as an act of civil disobedience in front of the White House. Shouting "no to the Keystone pipeline" as she was handcuffed, Hannah made it clear she opposed the proposed Canada to Texas pipeline.
Maude Barlow, a Canadian author and activist and chairperson of The Council of Canadians, was arrested in September at a Keystone pipeline and oil sands protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. She was one of over 100 protesters of the demonstration's estimated 400 to be arrested. Writing for HuffPost Canada about her first experience being arrested, Barlow blogged, "I did it because I fear we are killing the planet and I can no longer be content to only write and speak about it. Today my feet spoke for me as I crossed that barricade and took away one more fear in my life." She also said, "By investing trillions of dollars into these pipelines, governments and the energy industry are ensuring the continued rapid acceleration of tar sands development, instead of supporting a process to move to an alternative and sustainable energy system."
Kyra Sedgwick, star of the television crime drama "The Closer," has voiced her opposition to the pipeline. In a video for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sedgwick said "Just like the BP oil spill, one glitch in the tar sands pipeline could destroy our clean water sources, possibly forever."
Joining several other prominent actors, David Strathairn appeared in a video urging President Obama to reject the Keystone Pipeline. He calls on his fellow Americans to join the November 6 Tar Sands Action in Washington, D.C. Strathairn, who is known for his portrayal of journalist Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck," said, "Obama ran for office speaking of the dangers of our fossil fuel addiction, promising to fight climate change and fully embrace a clean energy future. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is a dangerous step away from that commitment."
In recent years, pipelines have become the targets of those determined to stop exploitation of Alberta's oilsands, viewed in some quarters as the dirtiest type of crude there is.
By pinching off the means to ship growing oilsands crude to the lucrative U.S. Gulf Coast market, opponents believe they can slow down development of that resource.
That opposition, and subsequent political wrangling in Washington, has caused repeated delays and setbacks for the Keystone XL pipeline.
U.S. President Barack Obama's long-awaited decision on the project is expected to come toward the middle of this year, though some believe it could take longer, pushing back the late-2014, early-2015 start-up target.
TransCanada Corp. (TSX:TRP), the Calgary-based company looking to build pipeline, is a blue-chip stock that's widely held.
A denial of Keystone XL could shave several dollars off of TransCanada's stock price, whereas an approval would lead to a modest pop, Stephenson said.
"It's a big deal if you're an investor in the shares of TransCanada," he said.
But Lanny Pendill, an analyst at Edward Jones, says TransCanada has several billion in other new projects on the go in addition to Keystone XL.
"To the extent that it doesn't get approved, I would imagine that we would see some type of short-term, knee-jerk reaction in the stock, just because it would be a disappointment," he said.
To investors, Pendill says: "don't panic."
"Continue to collect that good dividend, stay focused on the longer term," he said.
"It's still a utility. It's still a pipeline company and those earnings are pretty defensive in nature relative to other industries."
The Keystone XL outcome will also have an impact on the heavy oil companies looking to sell their crude for a higher price, and the Gulf Coast refiners looking to process it.
Canadian heavy oil producers have seen their profits eroded by the price gap between their product and the lighter, easier-to-refine U.S. benchmark, West Texas Intermediate.
A heavy crude discount is not unusual, given its lower quality and distance to market, but the differential widened to a painful $40 per barrel late last year before returning to more normal levels.
Stephenson says the biggest winners if it goes ahead, besides TransCanada, would be Canadian heavy oil companies such as Suncor Energy Inc. (TSX:SU), Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (TSX:CNQ) and Imperial Oil Ltd. (TSX:IMO). Conversely, they would also lose out most in the event of a rejection.
There are some companies that may see a bump in business if Keystone XL is nixed, Stephenson said.
More and more crude is moving to market by rail in the absence of adequate pipeline capacity, so Canadian Pacific Railway (TSX:CP) and Canadian National (TSX:CN) could benefit. As well, TransCanada rival Enbridge Inc. (TSX:ENB) has its own projects to the Gulf Coast that are not as politically contentious.
While Pendill says Keystone XL is an important project that ought to go ahead, he notes there are several other proposals to the south, east and west that could help Canadian producers get their product to market.
Though projects such as Enbridge's Northern Gateway, and TransCanada's eastern pipeline proposal face risks of their own, Canadian oil producers should be in good shape if at least some of those pipeline projects go ahead.
"I don't think it's going to completely halt production in the oilsands and really penalize the oil producers there, simply because of these other project initiatives that are pretty likely."