Shareholders urge TransCanada to back Keystone XL despite risk

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - TransCanada Corp should push ahead with an $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline expansion after the state of Nebraska on Monday approved a route that would raise the cost of the controversial project, some shareholders said.

FILE PHOTO - A TransCanada Keystone Pipeline pump station operates outside Steele City, Nebraska, U.S. on March 10, 2014. REUTERS/Lane Hickenbottom/File Photo

The approval quashed the last regulatory hurdle for the nearly decade-old project, but the Nebraska Public Service Commission denied TransCanada’s preferred route. That opened the door to potential delays and emboldened activists who said they would try to kill the project through protests.

TransCanada has so far spent $3 billion on the 1,179-mile pipeline and has said it would make a final investment decision by December, based on commercial support and Nebraska’s regulatory approval. More clarity on the company’s strategy is expected at its investors day next Tuesday.

“There might be a lot of court cases and what-have-you to go, but on the whole I’d like to see them go ahead with this project,” said Manash Goswami, senior vice president and portfolio manager at First Asset ETFs, who echoed the views of other TransCanada shareholders.

While oil does not form the bulk of TransCanada’s portfolio, some analysts estimate the Alberta-Nebraska Keystone XL project has the potential to contribute up to 10 percent to the company’s C$55.5 billion ($43.4 billion) market value.

TransCanada last month scrapped its Energy East pipeline, conceived as a back up after Keystone XL was rejected by the Obama administration.

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The impact of the longer Keystone XL route is unclear, but fund managers said the difference of five miles should be manageable. They are broadly positive about the company’s ability to finance the project, even if it has to raise funds through equity issuance.

TransCanada debt-to-equity ratio, a sign of indebtedness, is high at 221.2 percent compared with an industry average of 67.15 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Ryan Bushell, vice president and portfolio manager at Leon Frazer and Associates and another TransCanada shareholder, said the longer distance of the approved route is a small price to pay.

“An approval is an approval,” he said. “Time is more valuable than distance (because of) the rival pipelines and just the fact that the government could change, and this could all get shut down again.”

Other pipeline projects have been proposed in Canada, include Kinder Morgan Canada Ltd’s Trans Mountain expansion and Enbridge Inc’s Line 3 replacement. But analysts have said Canada may not need the capacity of all three.

TransCanada did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Laura Lau, senior vice president and senior portfolio manager at Brompton Group, said the company would be building the project at a time when its other major projects wrap up, and that some of the spending had already been done.

“And they’ll have increased cash flows from their existing projects,” she said. “That would be enough to fund the equity portion without having to raise more equity ... they only have to go through debt financing, which is normal.”

($1 = 1.2792 Canadian dollars)

Editing by Denny Thomas and Andrew Hay