It looks like Christmas is coming early for the energy industry.
A landmark energy bill -- crafted by real Santa Clauses of the industry -- offers presents galore to companies across the sector. Granted, some companies got less than they asked for in the measure, which was passed this week by the House and is now awaiting action in the Senate. But the industry certainly picked up plenty of big-ticket items at the top of its wish list.
, for example. The New Orleans-based utility has already told its hometown newspaper that it could reap $5.5 billion worth of savings because of a single provision in the $95 billion energy package. Rather than footing the bill when new generators hook up to its power grid, Entergy can now shift those expensive costs onto the generators themselves.
To some, Entergy seemed to score the biggest gift under the tree.
"If the legislation passes, champagne corks will be popping at Entergy," the
New Orleans Times-Picayune
wrote on Tuesday. "It is clear that Louisiana companies struck the mother lode."
It helps to have Santa nearby. Entergy is located in the home state of Rep. Billy Tauzin, who chairs the energy committee that doled out all the gifts. Together with Texas -- a huge energy producer -- Louisiana cashed in on some of the sweetest prizes in the bill.
Entergy got more than the connection fee break, for example. It also has a shot at some juicy tax credits -- to be shared with other nuclear energy producers like
-- that total $6 billion.
The nuclear tax breaks alone approach the $8 billion in credits President Bush had suggested for the entire energy package. Instead, energy companies will snare roughly $20 billion worth of tax credits and $45 billion in additional government funding.
Of course, some companies were undoubtedly hoping for more. Or they at least wished their competitors had gotten less. Nuclear power producers, for example, would have really scored if the bill had cracked down on the dirtier coal-fired plants that compete with them. Instead, the coal-fired producers escaped major environmental mandates and even picked up some lucrative tax breaks of their own.
Still, the biggest -- and most surprising -- winners are users of suspected carcinogens. Big gasoline producers, accused of polluting groundwater with the additive MTBE, will pick up nearly $2 billion for phasing out the chemical and, more importantly, escape exposure to costly lawsuits for using MTBE.
Jon Cartwright, a research analyst for Bank of Oklahoma, described that legal shelter as huge.
"There had been the potential for this additive to be the new asbestos," Cartwright said. "And the only way to get out of asbestos
exposure is to file for bankruptcy. ... So this would eliminate that fear in the market."
Big gasoline producers -- such as
( RD) -- stand to benefit most. But refiners could actually suffer. Companies like
must now replace MTBE with ethanol in a more complicated and expensive refinery process.
Aside from the MTBE shelter, energy analysts seemed most surprised by the bill's extension of tax credits for some unconventional gas wells. The bill essentially promises new tax credits for existing gas wells that became ineligible for the credits this year.
"We had expected an extension of the tax credit for new wells," wrote Prudential Equity analyst James Lucier. But "the language ... appears to go well beyond that."
Lucier expects exploration and production companies and oil services firms -- particularly in the mountainous West -- to benefit the most. UBS analyst William Featherston goes a step further and singles out individual companies that stand to profit from the tax break.
He points, in particular, to
. Stifel, Nicolaus analyst David Tameron adds a few of his own names -- such as
Patina Oil and Gas
( WGR) -- to that list.
Featherston does, however, question the logic behind the tax break.
"While it was fully expected that the Section 29 tax credit renewal would be part of the energy bill, we can't help but comment that it seems a bit foolhardy," he wrote. "E&P companies have been aggressively pursuing the development of coalbed methane and other conventional resources over the last decade without the benefit of a tax credit."
In fact, downtrodden
( EP) had already begun shifting its focus toward coalbed methane drilling well before the energy bill's release.
"It is clear to us that El Paso has not allocated enough capital to sustain its conventional onshore and offshore drilling programs," Prudential Equity analyst Carol Coale wrote on Tuesday. "However, El Paso's coal seam drilling has been growing. ... The positives are that the reserves are cheaper to drill and the proposed energy bill may provide a tax credit for unconventional drilling."
Coale nevertheless downgraded El Paso, lowering it from overweight to neutral weight, over lingering concerns about a once-solid E&P program that still needs a lot of help. She also remained cool on two other names that stand to benefit from the new legislation. She noted on Monday that two big master limited partnerships --
-- should become more attractive to institutional investors due to tax revisions in the bill. But she kept her neutral rating on both companies intact due to both industry and company-specific concerns.
In the meantime, consumer groups have already started screaming about the windfall for such companies.
"There is no rhyme or reason to this legislation," said Aileen Roder, program director at Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It is a grab bag of subsidies (and) tax giveaways for almost every special interest in Washington. ... By propping up the energy industry with corporate welfare, the federal government is picking winners and losers in the marketplace."
Peter Cohan, a Massachusetts author and investment strategist, saw the bill as little more than a payoff for big political contributors ahead of next year's election. He noted that even
-- a company well outside the energy sector -- had managed to profit from the bill.
"They got a two-year suspension of tariffs on imported ceiling fans," he explained.
Cartwright also acknowledged that the bill seemed generous.
"It's a major Christmas present," he said of the MPBE shelter in particular. "I'm sure there will be plenty for people to celebrate -- and plenty for people to object to -- inside that 1,700-page document."