The Busy World of Big Oil

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If you think the world of energy is dull with a capital "D," full of oil companies simply drilling wells, from which they reap a hydrocarbon harvest or register a dry hole, think again. This very minute, across the globe, there is a plethora of occurrences -- good and bad -- that are affecting Big Oil.

Let's focus -- in no particular order -- on happenings in the world of Big Oil:

  • ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) is in the process of pulling out its big checkbook to write a court-mandated interest payment for $470 million on $507.5 million that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered it to pay in connection with the Exxon Valdez spill two decades ago. The fine has been chopped, primarily by the U.S. Supreme Court, from an original $5 billion amount that was to be paid to 32,000 class action plaintiffs, made up of fishermen and other Alaskans who maintained that they had been damaged by the 11 million-gallon spill. The Ninth Circuit subsequently dated the 5.9% interest calculation from September 1996.

    Exxon says it will pay the interest within days. Could it possibly be that the company is working mightily to curry favor with Alaskans, since it has agreed to participate in the construction of a $26 billion pipeline that will transport natural gas from the state's North Slope to Chicago?
  • And then there's Chevron's (NYSE: CVX  ) dilemma in Ecuador. It seems that the Supreme Court has just ruled that the company can't require Ecuador's state-owned oil producer, PetroEcuador, to share its liability in an environmental damage issue. Ecuadoreans maintain that Chevron is liable for damage done by Texaco -- which Chevron bought in 2001 -- when, primarily in the 1970s, Texaco dumped toxic wastewater from its drilling operations into unlined pits.

    Ecuadorians maintain that Texaco's negligence resulted in cancer deaths and other mishaps. The case is now solely in the hands of a judge in Ecuador. The result for Chevron could be an ordered payment of more than $27 billion.        
  • On a more global basis, the International Energy Agency has just reduced its expectation for worldwide oil demand in 2013 to just under 88 million barrels a day. That represents a cut of 3.7% shrinkage just from December and 7% below last July's prognostications. The biggest production cuts (400,000 barrels a day) are expected to come from non-OPEC countries, with Mexico and Russia leading that pack, while the OPEC cartel is anticipated to add 560,000 barrels a day in capacity.
  • And it was more of the same in Nigeria, when members of the Niger Delta militant group MEND attacked a pair of Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A  ) installations in the delta on Monday. The militants bombed two oil-well units that supply Shell's Forcados export terminals in the delta. The result has been the shutdown of at least 100,000 barrels of the company's daily production and a nudge to world prices back above $70 per barrel. In the past month, MEND has also bombed facilities operated by Chevron and Italy's Eni (NYSE: E  ) .
  • In Saudi Arabia, according to an announcement Tuesday, Saudi Aramco and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) are resuming bidding, which was stopped last year, for the Yanbu export-oriented refinery that the pair plan on erecting in Saudi Arabia. Bidding on the facility was halted last year due to global economic uncertainties. The unit is now expected to cost $12 billion -- twice the original estimate. Just last month, contracts were awarded on an export-oriented refinery that will be developed by Aramco and France's Total (NYSE: TOT  ) .
  • And finally, albeit maybe most importantly, the long-awaited bidding process among the world's oil companies to operate in Iraq ended in surprising disappointment when only one bid -- submitted by a group led by BP (NYSE: BP  ) -- was approved by Iraqi authorities. The companies will work on the Rumaila field, Iraq's largest. Other international companies involved in the bidding process for the other seven fields rejected the low fees the Iraqis were willing to pay them for raising the crude output in the fields.

So there you have it: a sector with all sorts of action -- and we didn't even get into the action among independents. I urge you to pay close Foolish attention to this active sector where, as we learned with last year's price roller coaster, things can turn on a dime. And if you have a taste for investing in energy -- which you should to some extent -- I recommend that you look closely at Exxon, the biggest of them all, or BP, a company that is quickly improving its lot.     

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Total SA is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't have financial interests in any of the companies mentioned. He does welcome your questions or comments. The Fool has a disclosure policy that's bigger than big oil.

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