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By Robert Rapier on Oct 28, 2009 with no responses

The Future of Energy

I am back in Hawaii, and over the next couple of days I will climb out from under an avalanche of correspondence. I have a couple of essays to get out, including an interview that I conducted with the CEO from an algae company. What he said may surprise you.

Until then, the latest energy-related story from Money Morning. As I previously explained topical Money Morning content will be featured here from time to time. As always, normal caveats apply: I am not an investment advisor. I don’t endorse any specific stocks mentioned in the following story; these stories are meant to spur discussion.

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A Money Morning Interview: The Future of Energy

Renowned Oil Expert Dr. Kent Moors Details Shortages of Oil, the Impact of Higher Prices, the Promise of New Technologies and the Opportunities For Investors Dr. Kent Moors is one of the world’s foremost experts on oil, energy policy, finance, risk management and new technologies. Moors advises the leaders of six oil-producing countries, including the United States, as well as global corporations and banks operating in 25 countries.

Moors is the founder and director of the Energy Policy Research Group, which conducts analyses and makes recommendations on a range of energy-related issues. He is also the president of ASIDA Inc., a worldwide advisor on the oil-and-natural-gas markets.

In an interview with Money Morning Executive Editor William Patalon III this week, Dr. Moors detailed the top current energy challenges in the global economy, and also provided investors with a look at some of the looming new technologies, as well as a future in which China is a dominant global energy player.

Some of these issues are already at work. Although oil prices remain well below the all-time record of $147 a barrel set in July 2008, crude prices have been on the march of late. Just yesterday (Wednesday), in fact, supply concerns pushed oil futures up above $81 a barrel, their highest level in more than a year.

“If you think the run up to July 2008 was a wild ride, you haven’t seen anything yet,” Dr. Moors told Money Morning. “In the next five years, investors who focus on medium- to small-sized producers and oil-field-service companies having a well-developed specialty niche will outperform the overall energy sector.”

Money Morning (Q): In an earlier discussion, you said that the successful energy investor of the future wouldn’t be a person who just goes out and invests in ExxonMobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM). Can you explain?

Dr. Kent Moors: We are entering a period of rising prices. There is still some play left in the large verticals (vertically integrated oil companies, or VIOCs) such as ExxonMobil, but the primary profits will be made with smaller, leaner exploration-and-production (E&P) outfits, field-service companies and specialized producers (unconventional gas producers – shale gas, coal bed methane, tight gas, hydrates – heavy oil and biodiesel).

(MM): How will investors have to play this future? What types of companies should they be looking for, and where should they look?

Moors: The market rapidly approaching will be more volatile with valuation often more difficult to determine than in the past, even with prices increasing. How much of the increases result from actual product margins and how much results from oil becoming a financial asset rather than just a commodity is a major concern. It requires some careful homework. The types of categories mentioned above – smaller producers, new developments in field services and technology (especially those providing ways to decrease wellhead and operational costs, increase productivity, use associated gas, treat and utilize produced water, increase efficiency per barrel … there is a long list here) as well as the specialized producers and providers of their technical needs are the main targets.

(MM): When we look at the U.S. economy, you said that investors would be stunned to discover how much of our oil is produced by small players. In that discussion, in fact, you even described the type of firm that could be the “savior” of the U.S. energy sector, and perhaps even the economy. Could you take a moment to describe that situation and explain what that means for the economy?

Moors: The United States remains one of the top five producers of crude and will shortly ramp up production of natural gas (once the current glut has moved through the system). Sixty percent of crude produced in the U.S. market is at stripper wells providing less than 10 barrels of crude a day, but more than 20 barrels of water, a major byproduct. As America enters an accelerating field maturity curve (and an intensifying decline in well debit – well production), the efficiency of production declines. Therein lies a significant area for innovation and leaner companies. And that spells greater profitability at lower entry prices. Some offshore and Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) production will be done at scale, but that is not where the future of U.S. production will be. It will be the result of greater profitability at existing depleting wells with the new technology rolled out (on the oil side) and unconventional gas production.

(MM): Let’s take a look at the global markets, too. China’s global shopping spree has been well chronicled. As China locks up suppliers and supplies of oil and natural gas, what are the chances there could end up being what’s almost a two-tiered market, where China has access to oil and natural gas at lower prices levels, creating a shortage of non-captive supplies and leading to Western countries having to pay much higher prices?

Moors: Price rises for Westerners will occur anyway, and not just because of China (where a rising energy bubble resulting from the recent acquisitions is a concern). The competition for available energy sources will usually result in those regions prepared to pay more, increasing the overall aggregate price for most others. China, India, a resurgent East Asia, Japan and even regions such as West Africa will occupy important positions moving forward in this regard. Also, rising demand will center in places other than OECD countries. The new oil market emerging can hardly discount the developed countries, but the primary demand spikes are going to come from elsewhere.

(MM): After some significant turmoil in recent years, you said that Russia is finally opening up to foreign investment. Will that last, and what effect will that have on global energy prices?

Moors: To offset a more rapidly declining traditional production base (primarily Western Siberia), Russia must move north of the Arctic Circle, into Eastern Siberia and out on the continental shelf. These moves are technologically sensitive and very expensive. Moscow needs the outside investment and that will remain. However, projects must be carefully structured. Foreigners cannot own 50% of “strategic fields” under new laws or anything on the shelf. This means watch out for the smaller, focused operators and oilfield service companies. They will include companies currently trading on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) in London: The AIM and London Stock Exchange (LSE) are the sources of the new external investment phase in Russia.

(MM): From a global perspective, which markets show promise? And which ones – either because of overly restrictive investment policies, or because of the risk of nationalization – are markets to be avoided?

Moors: Many markets show promise or telegraph restraint. Let’s look at some of the more noticeably promising markets, organized by energy category:

  • Conventional Oil: Sub-Saharan Africa, Brazil, Kazakhstan, Russian Eastern Siberian and Far East smaller fields.
  • Conventional Natural Gas: Turkmenistan (if recent government overtures to outside investment remain genuine), Uzbekistan, Northwestern Australia (region of the Gorgon project) and New Guinea.
  • Unconventional Oil: Tatarstan (Russia) for bitumen and heavy oil, Alberta for oil sands (assuming an average and multi-year sustainable crude price of $72 [USD] a barrel or above).
  • Unconventional Gas: The United States for shale (especially Marcellus Shale) and coal bed methane (Powder River Basin, Wyoming, also basin into Montana – if that state reduces regulations), Poland, Turkey and Germany for shale, south central Russia and Ukraine for coal bed methane. If Baghdad and Erbil can finalize central Iraqi and regional Kurdish oil legislation – and if security is maintained – Iraq will become a major play in both oil and gas.
  • TO BE AVOIDED: Iran (sanctions and buyback contract frustrations), Mexico (collapsing infrastructure and nationalization), Venezuela (significant technical shortcomings, concerns over productivity assessments, and absence of Western operators).

(MM): If an investor were to divide the energy market into short/intermediate/and long-term segments, what will be the dominant energy plays (oil, natural gas, solar, coal-bed methane, for example) in each of those three time segments? What time periods would you tack onto the short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term segments? And which energy plays will be the real winners?

Moors: To make this easier to see, let’s divide this into short-term, intermediate and long-term segments and look at the key players, issues and technologies in each category.

  • Short-Term (five years out): Here we’ll see an increasing efficiency at existing oil wells; Marcellus Shale natural gas; an extension of large fields into known deeper production layers – for example, BP-led (NYSE ADR: BP) multinational plays such as the Azeri-Chyrag-Guneshli and Shah Deniz deposits offshore Azerbaijan. Other developments to watch are the huge Chevron-led (NYSE: CVX) Tengiz field in Western Kazakhstan, initiatives in the central Gulf of Mexico and all satellite fields operated by other companies.
  • Intermediate-Term (five to 15 years out): All U.S. and Canadian shale plays, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Russian coal bed methane, selected wind power Western U.S. and Baltic Sea region (Denmark, Germany, Poland).
  • Long-Term (20 years or more): All alternative and renewable energy (by this point, crude oil will be too volatile with supply problems and natural gas from whatever source will be the main power source both for conventional applications and for new technologies – fuel cells will obtain most of their price-sensitive hydrogen from natural gas).

Moors: Here’s the bottom line. Looking forward, successful energy investors will be those who: (1) weigh volatility as well as opportunities; (2) understand the rapidly changing supply/demand balance; (3) hedge within a focused time-frame; (4) watch the development of new technology to improve production, processing or transport; and (5) have a flexible approach to the market.