So this isn’t a stock that I own right now. I have owned it though. I’ve been following it and some other midstream plays fairly closely since early December.
Up until recently these midstream stocks weren’t performing all that well. They were getting beaten up with oil even though some of these companies have absolutely nothing to do with crude.
CNX Midstream for example. 100% natural gas and liquids. They are the child of the old Consol – basically a situation where the E&P assets went into one company (now called CNX Resources) and the midstream assets, so pipelines, compressors, and facilities, went into another.
CNX Resources is a fairly large Marcellus/Utica producer, wet/dry natural gas, 1.4 bcf/d.
CNX Midstream operates all the pipelines for them. They basically handle gas for CNX Resources and one other customer (HG Energy, which is private) so they are very concentrated.
Most importantly, CNX Resources owns 33% of CNX Midstream. They are also the general partner, which means they manage and operate CNX Midstream.
On their fourth quarter call CNX Midstream surprised the market. EBITDA guidance was $200 million to $220 million. Distributable cash flow guidance was from $150 million to $170 million.
Up until that point analysts had been expecting an EBITDA guide of around $245 million and the floor on DCF was thought to be $170 million. So this was a significant guide down. Below is from their analyst day forecast back in March of last year:
Well part of it was that their E&P partner CNX Resources reduced their activity in 2019. They phrased it as “minimum activity levels” and stressed that they would be “flexible” and add capital depending on prices and returns, but bottom line is that they are budgeting less than was anticipated.
So there’s that. What can you do – your customer is worried about prices or returns or whatever else and they decide to reduce activity. That means reduced through-put for CNX Midstream, or at least less growth than the analyst community was expecting.
But that’s only part of the story. One analyst, I believe his name was Matt Niblack (?) pointed out that there was still something that didn’t quite compute:
…the minimum [DCF] has been adjusted down from $170 million to kind of $150 million to $170 million due to timing and other factors. But there’s still upside to that, and we just have to see how that goes. I guess my only other question here then is, in the minimum guidance range, if that seems — and also, I think implied in CNX’s production growth range, you’re looking at kind of roughly flat economics relative to Q4, right? And I’m just taking your EBITDA in Q4 and multiplying it by 4. I realize there will be some seasonality associated with that, so that will vary quarter to quarter. But for the full year, that’s what you’re looking at. And yet, there’s significant growth CapEx…
So the question is, why are you spending the same amount of growth capital if you aren’t growing as much?
I read the transcripts a couple times and while the company is a bit vague about it I think the hint they give is when they start talking about de-bottlenecking:
“So a significant portion of the capital that we’re spending in 2019 is associated with de-bottlenecking projects”
So CNX Midstream spends money de-bottlenecking. That’s either compression, looping, twinning… it’s something that is going to lower pressure in an existing line. Lower pressure of course means more gas.
But it’s more gas on the back of Midstream’s capital.
This brings up the point about the competing interests of the E&P and midstream. Particularly when the midstream is controlled by the E&P. Whose best interests is the de-bottlenecking in?
I would argue that the E&P, so CNX Resources, benefits more from de-bottlenecking. If it was all one company the capital decision would be based on whether we get more bang (ie production/NAV/cash flow per dollar spent) from drilling a new well or from adding compression/looping an existing line and getting uplift from existing wells.
In this case it’s not all one company. CNX Midstream pays for the de-bottlenecking. So its a bit of a free-bee for CNX Resources.
Yes, CNX Midstream gets the volumes as well. But they just get a toll, and they could have gotten those volumes anyway if the E&P had used its own capital and drilled some more wells. Now I realize that drilling more wells in an area that could use some de-bottlenecking is likely going to back out other production. Sure. So drill them somewhere else, where there is capacity. Volumes are volumes for the midstream. My point here is that the uplift is paid for by the midstream but they aren’t getting the full benefit.
Of course CNX Midstream says that its a good rate of return. From the call: “I mean, we could follow up with those specifics. I mean, those are good rate of return projects. Otherwise, we wouldn’t do those on a standalone basis. It’s sort of like core, like baseload, sort of like easy low-hanging fruit stuff to do.” And it does give CNX Resources the ability to ramp production more at some point, now that pressures are lower. So there’s that.
One thing de-bottlenecking definitely does is it helps an asset look better, at least for a while. Not saying that’s the case here, I really don’t know. But type curves never talk about pressure. It’s rate vs. time. Nevertheless, you lower the pressure and rates go up. There is a reason engineers do a bunch of crazy math on their wells and introduce concepts like material balance time and pseudo-time. Its because its pretty easy to get the wrong impression from a rate vs. time graph.
It all just makes you wonder if CNX Midstream might be taking one for the team here? CNX Midstream spends some money on de-bottlenecking. It’s not really a big deal in the grand scheme of things, the stock takes a bit of a hit but it bounces because it doesn’t affect the dividend or anything. CNX Resources gets some free uplift from it. That helps their guidance. Everything looks a bit better. No one gets hurt.
Who knows! Maybe it’s all just efficient capital allocation. Nevertheless I think the thought exercise is worthy of contemplation: that there is at least the potential of misalignment with these E&P-midstream separations in the United States.