ExxonMobil Knows When to Fold 'Em

Who'd have thought it? It appears that ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , the world's largest integrated oil company, will quietly comply with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's edict that private and international companies producing heavy crude oil in the nation's Orinoco basin hand over a majority stake in their projects to the state's oil company.

ExxonMobil, which currently produces in the Orinoco -- along with, among others, BP (NYSE: BP  ) , Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) -- had been expected to take a firmer stand with Chavez. Chavez has decreed that the companies must cede majority interests in four heavy crude upgrading projects to Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, by May 1. While it's still too early to tell what approach they will adopt, many industry observers expect some of the other companies to take a stronger stand with Chavez, rather than simply surrendering operational oversight of their projects.

The crude produced in the Orinoco is generally a low-quality, tar-like oil, which is converted by traditional refineries into about 600,000 barrels a day of synthetic fuel. Some energy professionals question whether PDVSA has the technical capability to operate the production projects effectively, or even to avoid damaging them. Those projects generally are valued at about $30 billion.

Furthermore, roughly 80% of Venezuela's petroleum revenue comes from the United States, where most of the refineries capable of processing the gooey crude are located. Venezuelan crude satisfies slightly more than 10% of crude import needs in the U.S.

The Orinoco projects provide nearly one-fourth of Venezuela's oil production, which currently approaches 2.5 million barrels per day. Chavez has used petroleum revenues in large part to fund massive social development projects for his nation's poor majority. Those projects led to his being reelected in a landslide in December.

Along with Venezuela, Nigeria, another OPEC member, with daily production of about 2.3 million barrels, appears to be becoming progressively shakier. Most of that nation's production comes from the Niger Delta or from nearby platforms offshore. That area's local tribesmen generally have been precluded from energy-related jobs. Instead, those relatively high-paying jobs have gone to those from more influential tribes farther inland. As a result, the local tribesmen have resorted to sabotaging production projects as an expression of their dissatisfaction and destitution. It's also feared that national elections scheduled for next month could lead to intensified violence directed at the production facilities.

Most Fools also know about the veritable loose cannon that is the government of Iran, which must deal with increasing domestic demand, along with the possibility of gamesmanship from Saudi Arabia's Sunni royal family. With all this in mind, I would advise the Foolish nation to be pleased on the days that crude prices decline -- as is the case as I write this.

But to assume that price disruptions cannot be translated into significant price escalations seems to me to be tantamount to donning decidedly rose-colored spectacles. Indeed, for my money, Fools would be well advised to maintain an international energy representation in the portfolios. In that connection, any of the companies mentioned above -- and especially ExxonMobil -- would seem to be appropriate candidates for Foolish investment attention.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He welcomes your questions or comments.


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