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Opening Your Energy Mailbag

Will crude prices continue to rise in the face of a still-sliding dollar and a low likelihood of OPEC production hikes? How much higher will gasoline prices go in the short term? Will it cost me a king's ransom to heat my home this winter? Will higher jet fuel prices result in a new round of airline mergers? What will a combined Transocean (NYSE: RIG  ) and GlobalSantaFe (NYSE: GSF  ) be worth?

Those and other questions are all being bandied about in the face of crude prices that have risen to about $95 a barrel from near $50 earlier in the year. For a long time, that sharp jump wasn't fully reflected at the gas pump. Now, however, we're all noticing that it's taking lots more shekels to refill our gasoline tanks, and we may be thinking more about energy and its effects on the overall economy. In the process, we're generating even more questions about the sector.

We at the Fool are just starting a feature that we've termed the Energy Mailbag. We ask that you send us your energy-related comments or questions, either those dealing with big picture issues or others concerned with specific companies. We'll attempt to deal with as many as we can, and hopefully in the process we'll all have a little fun.

Merger value
Hayne writes:

Thanks for starting the Energy Mailbag. Here's a question I have seen batted around on the RIG message board at Yahoo, and which I think deserves some attention. With the coming merger of RIG and GSF, and net reduction of shares outstanding, what do you think a reasonable share price for the new RIG would be...?

That's a toughie, in that there will be lots of moving parts in the new company, some of which aren't completely known as yet. And so I called upon oilfield services analyst Phil Dodge of the Stanford Group for his thoughts. Phil, who's one of the more solid and experienced services analysts on the Street, estimates that, following the impending merger and cash distribution, Transocean will generate EPS of about $11.35 in 2008 and that it's shares will be valued about $93, for a multiple near 8.2 times.

Phil's probably at least close to right, which means the market's wrong. In this day and age, a company of Transocean's obvious quality should trade at a higher multiple.

Santa, please leave me some coal
I agree with Donald's contention that, "as we reach peak oil [the point at which global demand outstrips supply] other [energy] sources have to be valued higher." Donald specifically likes coal producer Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU  ) , which has interests in about 40 U.S. and Australian coal operations. He appears to have a point in that, at today's crude prices, coal becomes a progressively more attractive oil substitute, and coal liquefaction also becomes more economically justifiable.

Lou is writing a book on "The Oil Crunch," and was kind enough to send me a couple dozen slides he used during a talk on the subject recently. His contention -- if I might attempt to paraphrase him -- is that we're at or near the worldwide peak oil point. As he noted regarding his presentation on the issue, "I had both deep greenies and a retired ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) exec in the audience, and no one threw anything at me, so either I walked a very fine line or totally lost them all. I'm still trying to figure out which."  

Geopolitical dangers
Bennett believes that, "The largest immediate danger to oil supplies lies in the actions of [Russia] and Venezuela. If either, or both, decide to play their energy card against the U.S. and Europe, the price of oil and gas will soar up, up, and away." That's a contention that's difficult to contest, especially if you also include Iran and perhaps Kazakhstan in the mix. Think about it: Crude's up big just this year, despite reasonably good behavior on the parts of the usual list of miscreants.

And Geoff maintains that investing in deepwater drillers is the way to go. Agreed. I've long believed that the drillers are an undervalued group. And that phenomenon seems likely to become more pronounced in the face of sky-high commodities prices, increased international exposure for the drillers, and a greater prevalence of term contracts. Geoff mentions Rowan (NYSE: RDC  ) , Noble (NYSE: NE  ) , and Diamond Offshore (NYSE: DO  ) , in addition to the soon-to-be-combined Transocean and GlobalSantaFe. 

The changing times
John also tested my Foolish memory by asking, "Do you remember the Motley Fool article from approximately two years ago explaining how the price of oil would go back to $40 per barrel because as the prices rose, more oil would be produced?"

I don't recall that explanation really, and today the contention does seem a little silly, since we're going to have lots of difficulty just maintaining current production. But it wasn't many years ago that the assumption in that supply-demand-price explanation would have been considered plausible. It's only lately that we've discovered to our dismay that higher prices perhaps won't -- can't -- induce increased production. Indeed, Monday's Wall Street Journal included an excellent article on that exact subject.

So, Fools, send along your comments or questions. With energy becoming a progressively more important sector -- I'd argue the most important of all -- we need to keep the information flowing.

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