Natural gas companies have struggled as the fossil fuel's overabundance in North American shale formations has led to decade-low prices.
But don't expect those cheap prices to be around long.
You see, by 2040 there will be nearly 9 billion people on the planet, up from about 7 billion today. Most of the growth surge will come from emerging economies, meaning energy demand in those regions will hit new highs.
A recent report by Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) predicts that while energy demand will remain essentially flat in developed economies, demand in emerging markets will rise by nearly 60%.
This growth is good news for natural gas, since the world increasingly favors lower-carbon energy sources. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts natural gas will surpass oil as the planet's number one source of energy beginning in 2035.
What's more, emerging economies are big importers of liquefied natural gas (LNG), the fuel's most portable form. That's why the world's biggest oil and natural gas companies are placing huge bets that LNG is the "new oil."
And most of their Monopoly-sized wagers are saying Australia's the place to find it.
Here's why Australia will be the globe's next energy hotbed.
Australia's $200 Billion LNG Bet
Australia's vast resources along with its close proximity to fast-growing markets in Asia make it an ideal spot for big players looking to profit from the planet's insatiable appetite for energy.
"Australia is superbly placed to benefit from growing world gas demand, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region," Gavin Wendt, Founding Director and Senior Resources Analyst at MineLife told CNBC.
Now energy companies like Exxon and Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) are reaching into the Outback and other remote parts of Australia to tap supplies of the world's next great energy source.
Australia's natural gas resources consist of about 390 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which could double in size if exploration for shale gas is successful. So the majors are racing to drill wells and build pipelines in a mad dash to tap the trillions of cubic feet of natural gas that will be converted into LNG.
And even though the country has strong environmental regulations, its stable political and legal systems make it a user-friendly partner for investors.
Australia is currently the fourth-largest exporter of LNG in the world behind Qatar, Malaysia and Indonesia. But a wave of LNG projects worth almost $200 billion is set to lift Australia to the number one spot by the end of the decade.
Three large-scale LNG projects are expected to come online in the next five years that will produce almost 59 million metric tons annually — quadrupling Australia's capacity to roughly 83 million metric tons.
The biggest projects also involve the construction of LNG terminals to feed Asia's gas demand. Most of the gas will be converted to LNG and make its way to markets like China, South Korea and Japan.
The Natural Gas Companies Cashing in on Aussie LNG
Unlike oil, the price of natural gas is regional, not global.
So while a million BTU of natural gas in the United States is now below $2.00, a million BTU of LNG trades for over $9.00 in the United Kingdom and $15.00 in Japan.
Since it will be years before the U.S. will be ready to export LNG, Australian producers will have the Asian markets to themselves for a while.
That's why the oil majors are venturing Down Under and betting billions on gas deals.
Investors should look for natural gas companies that are focused on coal seam gas, an unconventional fuel that's become one of the world's hottest energy plays.
One reason is that coal seam gas is cheaper to produce since the wells are shallower than shale and do not always need to be "fracked."
More than $20 billion has been spent on these deals by companies including Royal Dutch Shell PLC (NYSE ADR: RDS) and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP). Just two weeks ago Exxon took a 10% stake in a coal seam deal worth roughly $15 billion.
Chevron has also teamed up with Exxon on a major stake in the $41 billion Gorgon gas project, the country's largest gas resource.
The integrated oil majors are the types of companies that have the resources to develop these large scale projects.
But keep in mind these are long-term projects.
Rewards will only come to investors with the patience to hold the natural gas companies that are positioning to profit from Australia's vast resources.
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