This Warren Buffett Stock Just Got a Vote of Confidence From a Key Rival. Is It a Buy?

At first blush it reads like a press release posted when there’s little else for a public relations department to talk about that day.

There’s more to SLB‘s (SLB 0.75%) plans to acquire 80% of Aker Carbon Capture, however, than there seems to be on the surface. While the $400 million earmarked for the deal will only put a small dent in the oil and gas services giant’s current cash hoard of $7.8 billion, the decision itself quietly speaks volumes about where the energy business is ultimately headed. It just so happens to be saying it even louder for fellow oil and gas company Occidental Petroleum (OXY 2.14%), which is arguably further down the carbon-capture road than any other name in the business.

But first things first.

What the heck is carbon capture?

Don’t sweat it if you’re not familiar with it. Most people probably aren’t. Carbon capture is a relatively young science.

Just as the name suggests, carbon capture refers to the extraction of carbon dioxide gas that would otherwise make its way into the atmosphere, where it can contribute to global warming. Sometimes this captured CO2 is put back into the ground where it doesn’t cause problems for the environment. Other times, it can be utilized to create chemicals, make plastics, and even improve the production of oil and natural gas wells.

There’s a handful of ways of capturing this carbon dioxide. Some of them are implemented right at the source of creation, like filtering it out of whatever normally spews from a power plant’s smokestack. Other approaches simply remove it from ambient air. All of them work to varying degrees. As you can imagine, though, this technology isn’t cheap. That’s why it’s still relatively uncommon. But the cost is coming down.

Enter Aker Carbon Capture. The Norwegian company’s “Just Catch” systems are capable of extracting 95% of the CO2 found in industrial exhaust — up to 400,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year — before it’s ever released into the atmosphere.

There are two ways the company’s technology can be monetized. One of them is the outright sale of Aker’s Just Catch and similar systems. The other way is allowing Aker to extract the CO2 being created at a particular facility, and paying the service provider on the basis of the weight of carbon dioxide it captures. Both business models are marketable, and increasingly so as the world regulates its way toward a zero-carbon future.

Seeing this inevitability on the horizon, SLB (which you may know better as Schlumberger) is simply positioning itself now to capitalize on a key part of the energy industry’s future.

Occidental’s piece of the carbon capture pie

Great, but what does any of this have to do with Occidental? It’s simple — the company’s already in the carbon capture business. Indeed, it built what was then the world’s biggest carbon capture facility back in 2010, only to shutter that site in order to erect an even bigger and more efficient direct-air carbon-capture facility in Ector County, Texas. This so-called STRATOS project will be capable of capturing up to 500,000 metric tons of CO2 per year.

That isn’t much more than the annual capture capacity of one of Aker’s biggest carbon capture systems. STRATOS is much more flexible, though, in that it’s able to extract carbon dioxide from the air regardless of how and where that CO2 entered it. This approach still satisfies the growing legal requirements that companies take responsibility for their carbon footprint by removing much of the carbon dioxide they ultimately create.

In this vein, Amazon, Airbus, and a couple of professional sports teams are already signed up as future paying customers. CEO Vicki Hollub thinks Occidental’s carbon capture customer count could reach 1,000 when all is said and done.

Occidental Petroleum’s potential as a carbon-capture service provider is augmented by its efforts to find ways of doing something constructive with this captured carbon dioxide gas. It’s been using CO2 to improve oil and gas well yields since the 1980s. And it’s partnered with biotech company Cemvita in finding ways to use CO2 as the basis for the creation of industrial chemicals and polymers.

Two clear upsides

Occidental’s upside to the removal of carbon dioxide is twofold. First (and most obviously), there’s money to be made with this tech, either by outright selling carbon capture systems or performing the work on behalf of companies that want to punt such duties to qualified experts.

Given its young age, the size and potential revenue of the carbon capture and carbon-storage market remains a bit fuzzy. To the extent reasonable guesses can be made, Global Market Insights suggests this business that’s worth $7 billion a year now will grow to an annual business of around $35 billion by 2032. Those numbers jibe with outlooks from Spherical Insights as well as Precedence Research. Environmentally minded regulatory requirements will be driving the vast majority of this growth.

The other upside for Occidental Petroleum is less obvious — until it’s plainly pointed out. That is, if fossil fuels’ prospective harm to the environment can be negated, the use of oil and natural gas can continue on well into the foreseeable future.

And that’s no small matter.

See, for all the efforts that have been made to create environmentally friendly renewable sources of energy, these still only account for a minority of the world’s total power production. The United States’ Energy Information Administration reports that petroleum is still at the heart of about one-third of the country’s total power consumption, while natural gas makes up another one-third. Moreover, Standard & Poor’s believes that even as far down the road as 2050 that petroleum will still be the world’s single-biggest source of energy.

While the need is already great and still growing, the world can’t afford to simply let the CO2 from that power production continue entering the atmosphere.

Buffett already sees the writing on the wall

Given all of this, Warren Buffett’s continued interest in energy stocks in general — and Occidental Petroleum in particular — suddenly makes much more sense.

As Buffett explained of Berkshire Hathaway‘s 244 million-share position in Occidental in his latest annual letter to Berkshire shareholders, “We particularly like its vast oil and gas holdings in the United States, as well as its leadership in carbon-capture initiatives.” That’s a rather specific mention from someone who tends to focus on the bigger picture rather than the smaller details. The fact that Buffett made a point of pointing out Occidental’s work on the carbon capture front at all illustrates just how important this tech is — if not right now, then at least soon. Underscoring Buffett’s message is the fact that SLB is now ramping up its investment in the very same arena.

So, take the hint. Occidental is clearly onto something here.


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