Taylor MacDonald: Bullish on Unconventional Oil
Source: George Mack of
Consumer pain at the pump is a windfall for E&P companies.
As old oil and gas fields are exhausted, companies move to new
regions where the potential reward may justify the inherent risk.
Pathfinder Asset Management Associate Portfolio Manager Taylor
MacDonald tells investors where to find new ways to play growing
energy demand in this
The Energy Report:
Is Pathfinder Asset Management a hedge fund?
Well, I think "hedge fund" would be a bit of a misnomer. We tend
to invest on the long side, though we can use derivatives and go
short. At the moment, we're much more of an investment fund. We
originated as a family office set up to manage the assets of one
particular client. After growing these assets organically over
the last two years and more than doubling them, we finally
decided to become a registered fund and initially will bring on
friends, family and business associates' funds, perhaps opening
the fund up on a much broader basis at some point.
You've been on the sellside as both an analyst and a banker. Now,
you pull the trigger to execute trades. Can you tell me the most
valuable thing you learned as a banker and as an analyst that
informs your practice today on the buyside?
I would say that the most important thing I learned on the
sellside is diligence-doing extensive homework on every deal
you're evaluating. And that's a process that continues well after
you make that investment by continuing to monitor things very
closely. I want to keep a short leash on the insider trading and
who owns most of the stock. I want to get to know management and
look into their histories and do background checks, if necessary.
I want to make sure I know every single aspect about the company.
That often leads to site visits, bringing in specialists or
hiring consultants to evaluate the technical merits of a given
As a banker and an analyst, you had an opportunity to look at
companies before they became public, so you had to do a lot of
original research. Do you find yourself doing that even after a
company goes public?
Absolutely. Once a company is public, obviously, that research
becomes much easier due to disclosure requirements. But we still
go through many of the same processes that I did when I was on
the investment banking side.
Based on your extensive research on oil and gas (O&G), what
do you see as the future for energy?
In general, we're very bullish on energy. As early as the third
quarter of last year (Q310), we pegged oil as one of our key
themes for 2011, and we continue to be very bullish on oil for
several reasons. First, monetary policy is a key driver. As long
as the Federal Reserve keeps printing money and debasing its
currency, a falling U.S. dollar is naturally good for all things
priced in dollars-especially key commodities like gold, silver
and oil. The second thing is supply and demand pressures, which
are decidedly positive and support a rising oil price. The
supply/demand gap continues to widen, and cheap barrels of oil
are becoming increasingly scarce. This leads O&G companies,
and by default investors, to go to riskier political
jurisdictions to look for unconventional hydrocarbon sources,
apply unconventional recovery techniques and find ways to become
more efficient in production.
Put these two core drivers against a shaky Middle Eastern and
North African political backdrop, and add the situation in Japan,
where multiple gigawatts of power are down due to damaged nuclear
reactors as well as Japanese refineries all over the east coast,
and the result is that they're going to have to get that power
somewhere else. The only way to get that is from oil, and perhaps
later from liquefied natural gas. All together, it's an extremely
bullish outlook for oil going forward; that's our thesis.
You have a few small-cap companies under management; but I see a
lot of micro caps, too. Do you have a special strategy for
dealing with the marketability of these shares? (Liquidity may be
a precarious term to use in companies of this size.)
Overall, I do that by limiting exposure to those less-liquid
companies and including certain liquidity requirements within our
portfolio. We help to diversify ourselves. Yes, there is added
risk because of liquidity concerns but there's also added risk
due to the early stage of operations and low valuations of these
companies. Therein also lies the opportunity to get a multiple of
your original investment back if you play your cards right. We
tend to look for things outside of the norm. We like the
unconventional plays and seek out what I describe as "innovation
and high potential return," as well as companies that have
What are some examples of unconventional deals with high
Obviously, cheap barrels of oil are scarce in the world today.
One name we're very fond of right now is
Africa Oil Corp. (TSX.V:AOI)
, a Lundin company. It's a company that's exploring major basins
in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and other African countries. Of late,
Africa has been a boon to the oil and gas industry and Africa
Oil, itself, is one of the largest landholders in the
East African Rift Basin
, which is one of the largest underexplored basins in the world.
Tullow Oil plc (LSE:TLW)
Heritage Oil Corp. (TSX:HOC; LSE:HOIL)
are active in the region. AOI, literally, is hunting in elephant
country. It's supported by one of the best management teams and
suite of shareholders in the business. CEO Keith Hill has a track
record of success from Valkyries Petroleum Corp. and Tanganyika
Oil Company Ltd, both of which are private. He's built up and
sold multiple companies, and now he's on to the next one. I
believe investors will be justly rewarded. In terms of sheer
geological potential, Africa Oil should be at the top of any
speculative investor's list, especially in the oil space.
Do you think of Africa Oil as a conventional play?
It is a conventional play looking in what I would call
"unconventional areas." Considering the world is short on cheap
barrels of oil, you're going to have to go to new jurisdictions
to find them; that's one of our key themes. This is a growing
area where you would potentially find billion-barrel pools.
How about other regions that meet your parameters?
Well, another one finding new barrels in underexplored regions is
Tag Oil Ltd. (TSX.V:TAO)
. It's a junior O&G exploration company that we've been
invested in for some time. TAG is focused solely on New Zealand's
, and it's been growing conventional production in the
, which now is at 700 barrels per day and growing rapidly.
Planned optimization in 2011 should allow for simultaneous
production at all eight of its wells, doubling production. Also
recently announced is a new discovery in the same basin at its
Broadside location where two successful wells have been drilled.
But what we find truly interesting is its exploration permits on
the East Coast that cover what could be one of the most
intriguing oil-shale regions yet discovered, potentially 12.65
billion barrels of original oil in place. Even if just a sliver
of this could be extractable, it still represents considerable
potential. TAG is expected to make strides toward the end of this
year to see what these shales could have, but you're backstopped
by current and growing production from its conventional leases in
the Taranaki Basin.
Well, TAG gives you some diversification into a more stable
Yes, indeed; and following on TAG's success is a company I would
suggest investors' put on their radar screens. We already own it
privately, and the IPO is coming next month. It's called New
Zealand Energy Corp. The company will be coming out at a
considerable valuation discount to TAG. While it has no
production presently, it has five times more acreage than TAG in
the Taranaki Basin and will be aggressively developing these
acres for conventional production. Beyond that, it also will
boast roughly the same-if not more-acreage covering potential
shale plays in the East Coast Basin.
Approximately what market cap are we talking about here when it
We're probably talking somewhere between $150 and $200 million
for New Zealand Energy Corp.
Wow. Any others?
There are two companies I really like that are more about
improving efficiency at proven basins and proven areas. One of
the companies is
PRD Energy Inc. (TSX.V:PRD)
. We've owned it for awhile and continue to be buyers. The
company is headed up by CEO Michael Greenwood, who is the former
chief financial officer of
Canaccord Financial Inc. (
. It's also run by Chief Operating Officer and former Mission Oil
& Gas Senior Executive Mark Hornett, who is one of the best
operators I know. They originally set the company up to go after
gas assets in North America, but the business model didn't work
due to low gas prices. So, now the company is on the verge of
signing several deals in Europe where it intends to go into old,
previously discovered pools that were under-exploited using older
technologies. PRD will use modern technologies, such as
horizontal drilling and down-hole stimulation to boost recoveries
and turn old shut-in wells into gushers. We expect announcements
on these earn-in agreements imminently and that the company will
be operational in 2011.
And the other company?
East West Petroleum Corp. (TSX.V:EW)
. It's a relatively new international O&G junior focused on
applying new technologies to enhance recoveries from existing
conventional oil resources and commercializing unconventional
sources of hydrocarbons. The core of the company's business plan
is to form strategic alliances with holders of both conventional
and unconventional assets. It has a strategic partnership with
Kuwait Energy Company where East West is earning into a
significant asset portfolio with enhanced recovery and
unconventional opportunities. Its management team has a
phenomenal track record and includes Dr. Marc Bustin, who was a
cofounder of the recently sold Cuadrilla Resources. The team also
includes President and CEO Greg Renwick, who has extensive
experience in the Middle East and was with
Dana Gas (ADX:DANA)
and the Honorable Herb Dhaliwal, former minister of energy for
Canada. This company is well positioned; it's got a market cap of
under $60 million, more than $30 million in cash and no debt.
Management has told me that they expect to exit 2011 with
1,500-2,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day of attributable
East West has sold off about 25% over the past three months. Was
that due to instability in the Middle East?
Some of that could be instability in the Middle East. The people
I've spoken with are actually operating in Egypt, and it's just
business as usual for them for the most part. I think a lot of
that is because of its association with Kuwait Energy Corp. Keep
in mind, Kuwait Energy Corp. has assets all over the world and
it's going to be working with East West on a lot of them. So, I
don't see as much risk as some people do here. This is a wildly
The market cap is at a sweet spot in the $50M-$60M range. It
doesn't take a lot of investment capital to double that stock
Exactly, especially if the company's able to put out the
production numbers it's forecasting.
You've got this extremely bullish picture on energy and oil,
particularly now, and you've just outlined your reasons.
Companies that service the exploration and production industry
also might benefit. Which E&Ps do you like?
We very much look to companies that solve the problems faced by
the oil and gas industry. There are two plays we like. The first
Cortex Business Solutions Inc. (TSX.V:CBX)
. I spoke about this in my last letter and my first interview
The Energy Report
. One area that's largely been overlooked in the O&G business
has been invoicing and accounts payable systems. Cortex helps
increase efficiency in the business by taking these systems
paperless. It sets up a Cortex Network and charges a fee for
every document that passes through its system. So, there's no
human error and no inefficiency. The company has been building
this for awhile and it really wasn't getting any recognition or
respect, but then about two years ago,
Husky Energy Inc. (TSX:HSE)
signed on and mandated that every single one of its +10,000
suppliers had to be part of the Cortex Network or it would no
longer do business with them. A number of other major O&G
producers came on board, but it wasn't until
Murphy Oil Corp. (
signed on that Cortex really started to get critical mass.
The last time we spoke, Cortex had only Husky and Murphy Oil.
Well, now you've got six other majors who signed on. Those would
Apache Corporation (
PetroHunter Energy Corp. (
Energen Corp. (
W&T Offshore Inc. (WTI)
and others. I'm sure there's a solid pipeline of other majors
that are going to be signing onto this system, so each and every
hub that you add on will already have suppliers that deal with
the other hubs. Now, it's kind of a manifest-destiny scenario for
Cortex in my mind. I believe it is about to turn the corner on
profitability; and by November or December of this year, we
should see that on a recurring revenue basis. I have no doubt
that it's going to become an insanely profitable business. Soon,
I think you'll see these guys make the leap to other industries,
as well, like construction or utilities.
Is a potential customer company required to have a major database
system installed, or can Cortex come in and manage a legacy
Cortex can absolutely come in and manage a legacy system. It's
very easy to sign onto, as well.
I see Cortex down 17% over the past 52 weeks. Does that, in your
mind, constitute value?
Yes it does, absolutely. A lot of the speculative froth on the
company has subsided and it's become a numbers story. In my view,
it's absurd that the share price has drifted the way it has over
the last year given all the strides forward the company has
You said there was another service provider you liked.
Yes. The other one that I would mention is a company called
Ridgeline Energy Services Inc. (TSX.V:RLE)
,which we've been involved with for a long time now. Initially,
it was environmental consulting and soil remediation; but about a
year ago, it acquired a technology that uses electricity to
separate out any bad stuff in dirty water. It's essentially a
water cleaning business. The company decided very quickly that
this technology could be used to clean dirty frack water, and
there are potential applications for tar sands lakes and
steam-assisted gravity drainage operations. The company has put a
pilot plant together at a gas-fracking operation in Northern
British Columbia, and the first commercial unit is nearing
completion; in fact, I was in Las Vegas three weeks ago to check
Water is a key resource, especially in Alberta, and it's
actually quite difficult to come by in the volume needed for a
fracking operation. Every time you frack a well, you have to
drill a disposal well-that costs you upwards of $1M, and then you
have to dispose of all this dirty water in the well. Not only
that, but you're taking water out of the ecosystem of rivers,
lakes and reservoirs. What this technology allows a company to do
is take that dirty water out of the frack well, clean it and
reuse it in the next well. So, not only are you conserving water
but you're stripping the cost out of having to drill a disposal
well for every frack well. It's also very interesting that
Ridgeline has taken the technology to a tar sands tailing area
and was able to separate out pure water.
It sounds like Ridgeline could open up some possibilities for
E&Ps to go into areas where communities may not want them
now. Do you see that as a distinct possibility?
My vision would be a Ridgeline water truck on every E&P site.
But, realistically, the company still has a lot of proving to do.
I will say the signs are very encouraging right now.
Taylor, thank you very much.
Thank you, too.
Taylor MacDonald is an associate portfolio manager at
Pathfinder Asset Management Ltd., a Vancouver-based family
office. He graduated from the Wharton School at the University
of Pennsylvania with a BS in economics in 2004. Prior to moving
to Pathfinder, he worked in equity research at Raymond James
Ltd. in Vancouver, investment banking with Haywood Securities
(UK) Ltd. in London, England, and institutional equity sales at
RenCap Securities in New York. Taylor has been a CFA
Charterholder since 2009 and is a Level II CAIA candidate.
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1) George Mack of
The Energy Report
conducted this interview. He personally and/or his family own
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3) Taylor MacDonald: I personally own shares of the following
companies mentioned in this interview: None. I personally am paid
by the following companies mentioned in this interview: None.
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