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LSB CEO Mark Behrman: new ammonia markets could reshape – and revalue – the company

We spoke to CEO Mark Behrman about his vision of the company's future.

Oklahoma City-based ammonia producer LSB Industries wants to be a player in new markets for ammonia as they develop, and is nearing a deal to provide blue ammonia to an existing customer in its ammonium nitrate and nitric acid segment, CEO Mark Behrman said in an interview.

Though Behrman expects LSB’s sales mix to shift – and the company’s valuation to rise – as ammonia markets evolve, it is pursuing deals to furnish blue ammonia at a premium to customers in its ammonium nitrate and nitric acid segment, currently its largest portion of net sales.

LSB is developing a blue ammonia facility on the Houston Ship Channel with INPEX and Air Liquide, offtake contracts for which could push its earnings mix away from more volatile fertilizer markets and help revalue the company. It also has a partnership with Lapis Energy for the installation of a carbon capture unit at its ammonia production facility in El Dorado, Arkansas.

“Unlike a lot of our competitors, who are really known as fertilizer companies, half our business is non-fertilizer,” he said. “So we’re really familiar with the non-fertilizer markets and the pricing and contractual nature of those markets.”

The company is in talks with its mining and nitric acid customers – Covestro, Dow, BASF – about helping them lower their carbon footprint via blue ammonia so these customers can meet 2030 decarbonization goals, said Behrman, who hopes to announce a sizeable contract within the next several months, “obviously at some premium to the price that they’re paying today.”

As for what the blue premium will be, for some markets the formulation might come down to the required capital investments and the developer’s desired return.

“I want long-term cost plus offtake contracts so I could de-risk the volatility in any cost,” he said. 

By way of example, Behrman said, “If we’re selling to JERA, and we have a long-term contract, and it’s a cost plus, so natural gas and power plus, it might be at a healthy premium to the overall ammonia market, or it might be a discount to the overall market,” he said, “but basically we’ve built an annuity because we’ve got a long-term contract at cost plus, and lock in our return as long as we operate the plant well.”

‘Meaningful player’

Behrman, a former investment banker, recognizes that it’s a brave new world for ammonia – particularly clean ammonia – with demand expected to come from myriad new places like shipping and power production. “We want to be a meaningful player as the new demand develops for ammonia,” he said. 

But he believes the market will evolve more slowly than expected, noting that initial estimates even for Japanese offtake and use of ammonia have already been pushed back.

“I think in the earlier years, so call it ‘28, ‘29, even ‘30, you’re probably only going to have two or three offtakers out of Japan until the other ones come online.” Korea, on the other hand, might be faster due to its national incentive scheme, he said.

Meanwhile, in the last few months, LSB has had a lot of conversations with potential European offtakers as Europe’s carbon tax scheme and the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) take hold.

“Europe, while still significantly focused on green, has come to the realization that it’s an energy transition and not an energy revolution,” he said. “So I think that we’re looking at trying to secure some European offtake as well.”

Behrman believes that, over time, 400 million metric tons of new demand for ammonia could materialize – the current global market is around 175 million metric tons – but “it would take a lot of switching from hydrocarbons to ammonia, or to partial ammonia as a feedstock, and it’s going to take the marine industry to really ramp up.”

The principal gating factors, he said, are the infrastructure required to support the transition and parties coming together on price.

Mix shift

The Houston Ship Channel project could be a centerpiece in LSB’s efforts to expand into new markets and potentially transform the way the business is valued.

“As we think about where we’re going and our vision of really being a leader in the production of low-carbon products, I think you’ll start to see more of our production trend away from fertilizer and to existing markets that we’re in by broadening some of those markets, plus really focusing on taking advantage of some of these new markets,” he said.

One reason is for the stability of the contracts compared to fertilizer markets, he added, which feeds into the second reason: predictability of earnings could lead to higher multiples on LSB’s equity, akin to valuation multiples for Air Liquide, Linde, and Air Products. For reference, LSB’s equity trades in the mid to high single digits on an enterprise value to LTM EBITDA basis, while equities for the aforementioned companies trade in the mid to high teens.

On LSB’s most recent earnings call, Behrman detailed some of the expected economics from the Houston Ship Channel project as well as the in-development blue ammonia facility in El Dorado, Arkansas. He expects to add roughly $150m of EBITDA each year from the Houston Ship Channel project and $15m – $20m of EBITDA annually from the carbon capture installation in Arkansas.

Behrman clarified in the interview that the $150m figure assumes 100% ownership of the facility, and that LSB’s ultimate ownership would come in the 45% – 49% range.

LSB is expecting to finish the pre-FEED study for the project in July or August of this year, at which point they would elect to proceed with a FEED study that would finish around September, 2025.

The company will use a project finance model to fund the project, and recently ran a process to select a banker, the terms of which are still being negotiated. Behrman declined to name the advisor.

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SK Capital acquires Milestone Environmental

Milestone’s CCS subsidiary Milestone Carbon has several CCS projects under development and recently announced progress in its Midland Basin project.

SK Capital Partners and affiliates have completed the acquisition of Milestone Environmental Services from Amberjack Capital Partners, according to a news release.

Latham & Watkins LLP acted as legal counsel and Houlihan Lokey served as financial advisor to SK Capital. Committed debt financing was provided by Cerberus Business Finance. Goldman, Sachs & Company and White & Case acted as financial advisor and legal counsel, respectively, to Milestone.

SK Capital has taken a controlling stake in Milestone in partnership with President and CEO Gabriel Rio, who will continue to serve in that role and retain significant ownership in the company.

Rio founded Milestone in 2014. It is the largest independent provider of waste management services and an emerging provider of permanent carbon sequestration services to US energy and industrial sectors, the release states.

Headquartered in Houston, Milestone operates a network of waste management infrastructure that permanently sequesters energy waste. Milestone has sequestered more than 2 million tons of CO2e through its proprietary slurry injection process.

Milestone’s CCS subsidiary is Milestone Carbon, focused on serving industrial CO2 emitters by developing and operating injection sites. Milestone Carbon has several CCS projects under development and recently announced significant progress in its Midland Basin project.

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Insurer launches world’s first facility for green and blue hydrogen project risks

The facility provides up to USD 300m of cover per risk for the construction and start up phases of hydrogen projects globally.

Insurance broker Marsh has launched a first-of-its-kind facility to provide dedicated insurance capacity for new and existing green and blue hydrogen energy projects, according to a press release.

Developed in collaboration with insurers Liberty Specialty Markets, part of Liberty Mutual Insurance Group, and AIG, the facility provides up to USD 300m of cover per risk for the construction and start up phases of hydrogen projects globally.

Investment in green and blue hydrogen initiatives is estimated to exceed USD 150bn by 2025 but operators have found it hard to secure adequate insurance market provision for these technologies.

Marsh’s facility is backed by a panel of A-rated global insurers, led by LSM and AIG. It is structured flexibly to enable clients – from small operators to multinational organizations – to choose coverage for the construction or startup phase, or a combined risks policy that extends to first year operations.

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LSB Industries pushing blue over green

LSB executives said they have paused a green ammonia project due to expected capital costs and a lack of clarity on tax credit incentives. But they detailed plans for a blue ammonia facility, including spending some $150m of cash over three years to fund their equity portion of the project, which was recently proposed for the Houston Ship Channel.

US ammonia producer LSB Industries sees market forces working in favor of blue ammonia projects versus green ammonia, and is prioritizing its blue projects while pausing a green ammonia facility planned for Pryor, Oklahoma.

Executives yesterday pointed to lower natural gas prices and an uptick in power prices along with missing guidance from the US Treasury for green molecules as the reason for pausing the green ammonia project.

Oklahoma-based LSB will use a project financing structure to fund its proposed blue ammonia plant in the Houston Ship Channel and likely find initial offtakers among Japanese and Korean power companies, CEO Mark Behrman said.

The facility, which would produce approximately 1.1 million metric tons of ammonia and capture and sequester 1.6 million metric tons of CO2 annually, is currently in the pre-FEED phase and planned for construction on the Vopak Moda Houston Ship Shuttle Ammonia Terminal.

“We selected the supplier of the technology license basic, engineering design, proprietary equipment, and catalyst, and we are in negotiations to finalize the related agreements,” Behrman said in prepared remarks. “In addition to engineering and design activities, we are working to secure offtake customers for the anticipated ammonia production. We expect initial offtakers to be Japanese and South Korean power companies.”

LSB is developing the facility in partnership with INPEX, Japan’s largest E&P company, and plans to build and operate an ammonia synthesis loop using low-carbon hydrogen produced by Air Liquide, who will also handle the carbon capture and sequestration as well as the nitrogen supply.

Based on LSB’s feasibility study, the cost of the project would come in between $500m and $750m, Behrman said, which could conservatively be financed with 60% debt, and, when taking the $750m figure, would amount to $450m of debt and $300m of equity to fund the facility.

“And for simplicity purposes, we haven’t worked out the ownership structure quite yet,” Behrman said, “but assuming that LSB and INPEX [have] 50/50 ownership of the loop that would be $150m of cash from LSB over a three-year period.”

The pre-FEED phase will last until 2Q24 followed by a one-year FEED period that would finish in 2Q25, he said.

“Within the time of us executing on a FEED study, we would expect that we would have negotiated take-or-pay contracts with the federal government, Japanese and Korean and potentially European and U.S. off-takers for the ammonia that we would produce,” Behrman said. “At the end of FEED, we would have to make a decision on whether we’re moving forward, so FID, and we would not move forward without take-or-pay contracts.”

Green ammonia pause

Meanwhile LSB has paused its green ammonia project, “given the uncertainty around the 45 tax credits, combined with the project’s current capital costs,” Behrman said.

He added: “We remain excited about this project and our opportunity to be an early entrant into the production of green ammonia and we continue to have discussions with potential offtakers for green ammonia supply, but we need clarity and finalization of the 45V tax credits before we can make a decision to move forward.”

Natural gas prices have decreased in the US while electricity prices have increased, working in favor of natural gas products.

“That then is a considerable headwind for the build-out of industry based on sourcing power from the grid, which includes green ammonia production,” he said.

“This development is also why we believe the path to blue ammonia is much easier than the path of green ammonia today, especially considering the lack of a green premium favoring production economics,” the executive said. “Therefore, our current focus is on making sure we execute effectively on our El Dorado blue ammonia project and our Houston Ship Channel blue ammonia project as they both set us up well for the future.”

At El Dorado, LSB is in discussions with the EPA for a Class V carbon capture and sequestration permit, and expects to commence production at the plant in 2H25.

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Inside Intersect Power’s green hydrogen plans

California-based renewable energy developer Intersect Power anticipates huge capital needs for a quartet of regional energy complexes co-locating wind and solar with green hydrogen production in the Texas Gulf Coast, California and the American West.

Intersect Power, a solar developer that completed a $750m capital raise last year, is developing four large-scale green hydrogen projects that could eventually be spun off into a separate company, CEO Sheldon Kimber said in an interview.

Four regional complexes of 1 GW or more, co-located with renewables, are in development, he said. The first phases of those, totaling several hundred megawatts, will come online between 2026 and 2028.

Initial offtake markets include transportation, sustainable aviation fuel, and hydrogen for industrial use, Kimber said. Ultimately Intersect is aiming to serve ammonia exporters in the US Gulf Coast, particularly those exporting to Japan, Kimber said, adding that the company could contract with ammonia producers. He recently wrapped up a nine-day, fact-finding trip to Japan to better understand what he believes will be the end market for Intersect’s green ammonia.

“If you don’t know who your customer’s customer is, you’re going to get a bad deal,” Kimber said.

Intersects projects under development involve behind-the-meter electrolysis, co-located with Intersect’s wind and solar generation plants. In 2021 the company signed an MOU with electrolyzer manufacturer Electric Hydrogen. The contract is for 3 GW.

Intersect controls the land and is in the process of permitting the four projects, located in Texas, California and another western US location that Kimber declined to name. The primary focus now is commercial development of the offtake and transportation, he said.

‘Boatload of equity’

Kimber said the company will be ready to announced details of the projects when they are ready to seek financing. He estimates that upwards of $12bn will need to be raised for the package of complexes.

“There’s going to be an enormous need for capital,” Kimber said. Debt will make up between 60% and 90% of the raising, along with “a boatload of equity,” he said. Existing investors will likely participate, but as the numbers get bigger new investors will be brought on board.

Intersect has worked with BofA Securities and Morgan Stanley on past capital raise processes, and also has strong relationships with MUFG and Santander.

Moving forward the company could have a broader need for advisory services and could lend knowledge of the sector in an advisory capacity itself, Kimber said.

“The scope and scale of what we’re doing is big enough and the innovative aspect of what we’re doing is advanced enough that I think we have a lot we can bring to these early-stage financings,” Kimber said. “I think we’re going to be a good partner for advisory shops.”

In the short term Intersect has sufficient equity from its investors and is capitalized for the next 18-to-24 months, Kimber said. Last summer the company announced a $750m raise from TPG Rise Climate, CAI Investments and Trilantic Energy Partners North America.

“People don’t want to pay ahead for the growth in fuels,” Kimber said, adding that reaching commercial milestones will build a compelling valuation.

Intersect could spin off its hydrogen developments to capitalize them apart from renewables, Kimber said.

“Every single company in this space is looking at that,” he said. “Do you independently finance your fuels business?”

Avoiding the hype

Right now the opportunity to participate in hydrogen is blurry because there is so much hype following passage of the IRA, Kimber said. Prospective investors should be focused on picking the right partners.

“What you’re seeing right now is everybody believing the best thing for them,” Kimber said, noting that his company has decided to keep relatively quiet about its activities in the clean fuels space to avoid getting caught up in hype. “The IRA happened, and every electrolyzer company raised their prices by fifty percent.”

Of those companies that have announced hydrogen projects in North America, Kimber said he believes only a handful will be successful. Those companies that have successfully developed renewables projects of more than 500 MW are good candidates, as are companies that have managed to keep a fluid supply chain with equipment secured for the next five years.

“That is a very short list,” he said.

Lenders on the debt side will want to start determining how projects will get financed, and which projects to finance, in the next 18 months, Kimber said.

Finding those who have been innovating on the front-end for years and not just jumped in recently is a good start, Kimber said.

“Hydrogen will happen, make no mistake,” Kimber said. He pointed to the recent European directive that 45% of hydrogen on the continent be green by 2030 and Japan’s upcoming directive to potential similar effect. Once good projects reach critical points in their development they will start to trade, probably in late 2024, he said.

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Pennsylvania RNG firm outlines strategic outlook

A growing RNG developer, owner and operator based in Pennsylvania is anticipating a liquidity event on the part of its private equity owner — once it has locked down a “critical mass” of projects.

Vision RNG, a developer of US RNG projects, could see its next project reach commercial operations in Tennessee in a line of projects in southeastern and mid-western states, CEO Bill Johnson said in an interview.

Vision Ridge Partners, a private equity firm, is the majority owner of the company. Management owns the remaining minority stake.

The company is still in early stages and would likely need to get something like six projects to COD before a liquidity event.

“Locking down projects creates a lot of value,” Johnson said, noting that Vision Ridge will likely follow a typical private equity monetization pattern.

The company’s project at Meridian Waste’s Eagle Ridge Landfill in Bowling Green, Missouri is fully operational. It uses 1,500 scfm of landfill gas (LFG) and produces 375,000 MMBtu of RNG annually.

That mid-sized project is similar in scale to what is being developed in Tennessee, which will likely be the next project to reach COD, Johnson said, declining to provide details on exact location.

“We’re working on developing other opportunities with some of the largest publicly owned landfill companies in the country,” Johnson said.

Projects require between $20m and $60m in capex, ranging from small to large, Johnson said. Vision Ridge takes care of the company’s equity requirements.

Debt options are being considered on a project-by-project basis, he said. Debt tends to range from 50% to 70% of total spend.
“We’ll look to put reasonable project debt on these,” he said.

Vision has not to date retained the services of an investment bank, Johnson said.

Vision is pursuing opportunities in Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina and Oklahoma, and will evaluate suppliers of services and equipment for each. The location-agnostic company is also open to new relationships with potential future financial and strategic acquirers.

“If you are a private equity group, you’re a potential buyer of the company at some point, so we would be happy to know them and keep their interest in us up,” Johnson said. An acquirer would not necessarily need to have expertise in RNG.

M&A potential

M&A of projects is an option on the table, Johnson said. But returns are better if Vision develops its own projects; and a more challenging macroeconomic environment makes acquisitions somewhat unlikely.

“With the market premiums being paid, I see us continuing to keep our head down and focusing on organic growth,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he expects to see continued consolidation in the greater market. Many large strategic and midstream companies have yet to make significant buys in RNG.

He pointed to bp’s acquisition of Archaea Energy as a significant milestone in the RNG market.

“There’s quite a number of potential acquirers,” Johnson said. “The market is kind of fundamentally and always will be under-supplied and over-demanded.”

Vision would potentially be open to a merger with a portfolio company of a strategic or PE investor, Johnson said.

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US clean fuels producer prepping equity and debt raises

A Texas-based clean fuels producer is close to mandating an advisor for a platform equity raise. It has already tapped Goldman Sachs to help arrange a cap stack in the billions for a project in Oregon.

NXTClean Fuels, a Houston-based developer of clean fuels projects, is preparing a $50m to $100m platform equity raise in the near term and has large debt and equity needs for a pair of projects in Oregon, CEO Chris Efird said in an interview.

The company is close to engaging a new financial advisor for the raise, which will launch late this year or early next, Efird said.

Port Westward

Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs’ post-carbon group is retained for the capital stack on NXTClean’s flagship project at Port Westward, at the Port of Columbia County, Efird said. The $3bn CapEx (including EPC) project is fully permitted by the State of Oregon and is awaiting one federal Clean Water Act permit. An Environmental Impact Statement is expected this fall.

The project is dedicated to producing a split of renewable diesel and SAF, amounting to roughly 50,000 barrels per day total permitted capacity when fully operational.

FID is expected for roughly August 2024, he said. About 30 months from FID the plant will reach COD.

“What we’re most focused on right now is the true senior debt,” Efird said. On the equity side the company is engaged with strategic partners that have indicated interest in post-FID equity.

NXTClean has conversations ongoing with the Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office, along with commercial project finance lenders.

Red Rock

In April NXTClean acquired what was the Red Rock Biofuel facility in Lakeview, Oregon. That woody biomass-to-SAF facility foreclosed after $425m in investment, following technical and financial issues brought on by the COVID 19 pandemic. NXTClean purchased the facility for $75m in preferred stock at auction on the courthouse steps.

GLC advisors was retained by lead bondholder Foundation Credit to advise on that process, Efird said.

Red Rock is being repurposed to produce carbon-negative RNG for the adjacent Tallgrass Ruby Pipeline, Efird said. The fully-permitted project has a significant amount of equipment already installed or on skids.

A first phase will require a spend of $100m to $150m. Some $50m of equity will augment a balance of debt, raised in part through USDA programming, Efird said. Cash flow from the first phase will help with the second phase, which will bring the capital needs of the facility up to as much as $400m.

Looking forward

Geographically, NXTClean will expand in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, Efird said.

Each of NXTClean’s two projects are held by a separate subsidiary. The company has a third subsidiary called GoLo Biomass that focuses on feedstock aggregation, Efird said. It engages with fish processors in Vietnam and used cooking oil suppliers in South Korea to augment supply from large companies.

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