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How individual investors can play the energy boom

Investors can see it in the facts and figures put out by government agencies, in the wary statements made by OPEC and on the streets of small-town North Dakota and Pennsylvania: The United States is in the middle of a major energy boom.

So how does the average U.S. investor get in on these very above-average days for U.S. energy production? Analysts and investors who spoke with CNBC suggested staying away from the major producers and looking at infrastructure firms, refiners and less conventional plays.

Construction workers specializing in pipe-laying work on a section of pipeline outside Watford City, N.D.
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Construction workers specializing in pipe-laying work on a section of pipeline outside Watford City, N.D.

Climbing U.S. natural gas and oil production "continues to reshape the U.S. energy economy," according to the Energy Information Administration, with crude production now approaching the all-time high of 9.6 million barrels per day it reached in 1970. But that increase hasn't done much to help shares of the major oil producers.

"The ones lagging behind are the oil majors," said John Kilduff, partner at Again Capital. "It's more the smaller companies, the innovators" that are benefiting from the changing energy landscape.

Kilduff pointed to companies building infrastructure—the oil pipelines, gas pipelines, oil rigs and other hard elements that support the boom. The rush to build infrastructure is still on: The U.S. saw 3 percent growth in available storage capacity in 2013, for example, and Kilduff expects that growth to continue.

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"The ability to get natural gas to market hasn't kept up with the growth in production," he said. Natural gas prices, he said, are holding up despite the infrastructure growth that has already taken place, as supply bottlenecks continue to hit the U.S. distribution system.

"We haven't broken the back of these prices, so the investment thesis makes a lot of sense," Kilduff said.

Kilduff pointed to several publicly traded firms that serve various parts of America's energy framework, including Baker Hughes, Schlumberger, Anadarko and EOG Resources.

'Midstream' companies

A derrick hand for Raven Drilling, works on an oil rig drilling into the Bakken shale formation outside Watford City, North Dakota.
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A derrick hand for Raven Drilling, works on an oil rig drilling into the Bakken shale formation outside Watford City, North Dakota.

Joining Kilduff in pointing to the potential appeal of infrastructure investments was Trevor Houser, partner at economic research firm Rhodium Group.

Houser pointed out that natural gas producers are themselves making "considerably less money today than they were before the shale boom." However, "midstream" concerns such as master limited partnerships in the pipeline industry and companies like Kinder Morgan have performed well.

(Read more: Exporting oil a good idea? Not everyone thinks so)

Houser indicated that the fundamental truth about U.S. energy transport infrastructure hasn't changed significantly in the last few years: "We have a domestic crude oil delivery system that's oriented around bringing imports into the country from the Gulf" rather than shipping oil and natural gas from the middle of the country outward, he said.

A shortage of pipeline capacity has led to "big disconnects" between crude prices in the Midwest and Rockies compared with global prices, Houser said, noting that U.S. refiners currently buy oil at a 15 to 20 percent discount to global prices—but still sell into a global market.

Refiners

A floor hand for Raven Drilling, works on an oil rig drilling into the Bakken shale formation outside Watford City, N.D.
Getty Images
A floor hand for Raven Drilling, works on an oil rig drilling into the Bakken shale formation outside Watford City, N.D.

And that, naturally enough, is helping the refiners. U.S. exports of refined petroleum products such as gasoline, propane and heating oil, rose 11 percent in 2013 over the year before to set a record, according to data from the EIA.

Refining is likely to stay "in good shape for a number of years," according to RBC senior energy analyst Leo Mariani, who noted that refiners' margins will stay healthy as long as there's a broad spread between the prices of West Texas Intermediate crude (the U.S. pricing standard) and Brent crude (the international standard). That spread currently stands at a little less than $10 a barrel.

(Read more: Why traders want to be long gold into the weekend)

However, analysts and experts who spoke with CNBC warned that all bets are off for the refiners if the U.S. oil producers are successful in their attempts to get the government to allow more exports. Oil producers, especially the so-called majors, want to expand exports. Many observers agree that such a move would make domestic oil prices rise as U.S.-produced oil finds more buyers outside the U.S. who are currently paying higher, Brent prices. That, in turn, would cut into refiners' margins.

Mariani indicated that an expansion to oil exports is more likely to happen than not—in part because the oil producers have more money to spend on lobbyists than the refiners do. "The producers have a lot more money than the refiners," he said. "Exxon Mobil has a bigger market cap than all the refiners combined."

Smaller producers

Like oil, natural gas is cheaper for now in the United States than it is overseas. Jeff Gitterman, CEO of wealth management firm Gitterman & Associates, foresees more exports of both oil and natural gas, "but we're still two or three years away from manifesting that and then getting profits on it." (Gitterman said he expects natural gas prices to go to around $6.50 or $7 if the United States exports, up from the current level of about $4.60.)

Gitterman in recent years invested in direct participation programs, which are offered by smaller natural gas and oil drillers themselves and give investors a piece of well ownership. Gitterman said "probably hundreds" of such programs are available, usually through broker-dealers.

He pointed to a 2011 direct participation investment in offshore oil wells that he said will give his clients "four to five times back" on their investment, "and that's assuming oil prices stay where they are, not going up in price."

By CNBC's Ted Kemp. Follow him on Twitter at @TedKempCNBC.

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