European oil major BP plc (NYSE: BP)has come a long way since the 2010 Macondo rig explosion and resulting oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The crisis was so damaging that the company was nearly brought to the brink of total financial ruin. This resulted in tens of billions of dollars lost and the long-lasting impacts are clear. On Apr. 20, 2010—the day of the Deepwater Horizon spill—BP stock closed at $60. Today, the stock is at $30.

BP stock has lost half its value in the past six years. In response, BP is a slimmed down company with a renewed focus on efficiency. This has helped shore up its finances, but there is much more work to be done to restore BP to the company it once was. BP is making significant investment in natural gas, and more specifically, liquefied natural gas, or LNG. The company sealed major natural gas supply and production agreements that have the potential to add billions of dollars back to BP’s bottom line. Analysts are very optimistic that these projects will meaningfully add to BP’s earnings in future years, which is why investors may want to view BP as an attractive opportunity right now.

BP needs a boost

BP has endured a massive hit to its earnings in the past six years. To date, BP has absorbed $55 billion in cumulative charges relating to the legal and financial penalties pertaining to the 2010 oil spill. Financing these charges has not been easy—BP has had to sell off billions in assets and cut spending just to stay alive. BP sold $10 billion of assets just in the past two years. Since 2010, it has divested $75 billion of assets. It also suspended its shareholder dividend in the aftermath of the spill.

If that weren’t bad enough, just as BP’s finances began to recover from the oil spill, it got hit with collapsing commodity prices. Brent crude oil declined from $110 per barrel in 2014 to under $40 per barrel recently, which caused BP to lose $6.4 billion last year. That completely reversed a $3.7 billion profit the year before.

As a result, it’s abundantly clear BP needs a boost. Fortunately, that boost could come in the form of natural gas.

BP plants its flag on natural gas, LNG

Looking longer-term, BP’s future earnings will be significantly boosted by natural gas. The likely catalysts for this growth are the major deals BP recently signed with Chinese energy companies. First, BP sealed a deal with China Huadian Corp., a Beijing-based company that operates power stations in China. This is a landmark deal for BP which could be worth as much as $10 billion to the company. BP will supply China Huadian with as much as 1 million metric tons of LNG per year over the next two decades. Separately, BP also came to a joint-venture agreement with China National Petroleum, the country’s biggest oil producer, to share exploration and production of shale gas in China’s Sichuan basin.

These deals are the culmination of BP’s strategic imperative, which is to meaningfully expand its presence in Asia. It is easy to see why—Asia is the world’s premier destination for LNG, as several nations including Japan and South Korea are experiencing booming demand. Furthermore, demand from premier emerging markets like China is only expected to grow in the future, particularly as these countries make more of an effort to pursue bridge fuels like natural gas as an alternative to dirtier sources of energy such as coal, which are contributing to the country’s pollution problems.

Lastly, BP is currently in the process of completing construction at its Oman Khazzan tight gas project. This is a 300-well project, expected to develop approximately seven trillion standard cubic feet of gas and deliver plateau production of one billion standard cubic feet of gas per day and 25,000 barrels per day of gas condensate. Peak, gross production is projected at 200,000 barrels per day of oil equivalents. This project is expected to start-up next year.

Analysts hold high hopes for BP earnings growth

As BP’s major upstream gas projects come on-line and ramp up production, they will turn from a use of cash to a source of cash. This will be a huge help to BP’s profitability next year, even in an environment of low commodity prices. BP’s over-arching goal is to become free cash flow positive, which could happen next year. Part of this equation is a huge reduction in capital expenditures, made possible by these natural gas projects coming on-line.

Analysts on average currently forecast BP to earn $2.73 per share in 2017, up from $1.13 per share this year. That amounts to more than 100 percent earnings growth expected next year, which will be due in large part to BP’s major natural gas projects.

Analysts are optimistic about BP—the median price target for the stock is $34.05, which represents approximately 11 percent upside potential from its current share price.

Companies to watch

Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM): Exxon Mobil has its own LNG ambitions. It has built a massive LNG facility in Papua New Guinea that, once completed, will produce 6.9 million tonnes of LNG per year. It is expected that over the anticipated 30-year lifespan of the project, over 9 trillion cubic feet of gas will be produced and sold.

Chevron (NYSE: CVX): Chevron is another company that has made huge investments in supplying LNG to Asian markets. It has built two massive LNG projects in Australia, Gorgon and Wheatstone. Wheatstone is a $29 billion project which includes two LNG trains with a combined capacity of 8.9 million tonnes per annum and a domestic gas plant. First shipments are expected in late 2016.

Meanwhile, the $54 billion Gorgon project achieved first cargo shipment, to Japan. More than 80 percent of Gorgon’s estimated production is covered by sales and purchase agreements with customers in the Asia-Pacific region.

Disclosure: The author is long BP

Bob Ciura is an independent equity analyst. Since 2012, his work has focused on fundamental investment analysis of publicly-traded companies in the energy, technology, and consumer goods industries. Bob has a Bachelor's degree in Finance and an MBA in Finance.