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I suggest that you not look down. If you do so, you're apt to discover that we're all standing on a slick energy banana peel.
Think about it. President Obama is in the process of cobbling together an ideal energy package designed to achieve energy independence. And it just might -- for our children and grandchildren. But the notion that we can now punish Big Oil companies through tax and regulatory excesses -- as I suspect will be the case -- seems totally foolhardy. And there'll likely be similar tough sledding for coal companies, especially surface miners like Patriot Coal (NYSE: PCX ) and Massey Energy (NYSE: MEE ) .
Flip that switch
But it appears that this is the road that will be taken, because many of the powers that be in Washington mistakenly believe that, at a moment's notice, we'll be able to virtually flip a switch and fulfill most energy needs with renewable energy. I'm as green as the next person. Planet Earth is the only place I've ever inhabited. However, a little realism on the energy scene would be welcome.
I'm also trying to be realistic by wagering that the magic renewable energy switch won't become meaningfully operative for perhaps decades to come. In the meantime, with the need to import the lion's share of the oil and gas we consume -- frequently from countries that aren't our friends -- it wouldn't take much for that banana peel to get us.
Right out of graduate school and working for what is now part of Royal Dutch Shell, I had the pleasure of meeting James Schlesinger, the nation's first Secretary of Energy. A Washington Post article that he recently co-wrote with Robert Hirsch, another longtime energy seer, began with:
Why are we ignoring things we know? We know that the sun doesn't always shine and that the wind doesn't always blow. That means that solar cells and wind energy systems don't always provide electric power. Nevertheless, solar and wind energy seem to have captured the public's support as potentially being the primary or total answer to our electric power needs.
The article went on to point out that large-scale storage of electricity is available only in the few places where hydroelectric dams exist. Beyond that, and because of the need for backup systems in places where there aren't such dams, wind and solar require total backup from other forms of energy -- e.g. fossil fuels. On that basis alone, the implementation of full-scale wind and solar systems will be costly and likely is eons away.
All this is not to advise Fools to avoid solar and wind energy companies altogether. Indeed, you're fortunate that, if you’re a regular Motley Fool reader, my colleague Toby Shute does a world-class job of keeping up with solar, from LDK Solar (NYSE: LDK ) and Suntech Power (NYSE: STP ) to the other meaningful players in the group. Beyond his work, I'm simply looking for a little realism about how quickly wind and solar can really make a difference in our lives.
Drill, baby, drill!
Until we're able to depend on renewable energy for most of our needs, we'll need to explore for, produce, and process oil and gas the old-fashioned way -- albeit with some new technology added. As a result, hydrocarbons will account for most of our energy needs for many moons to come. That's precisely why there are companies like Brazil's Petrobras (NYSE: PBR ) and ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) , among others, drilling in challenging and inhospitable places like Russia's Sakhalin Island and the salt cap beneath the deep waters of Brazil's Santos Basin.
And then there's the refinery scene. Industry consulting firm Wood Mackenzie is predicting that the majority of new refinery capacity added over the next several years will be located in the Middle East and Asia. Clearly, that rebalancing act -- along with a disdain for nuclear power and a refusal to drill for oil and gas off most of our outer continental shelf -- will do nothing for the president's avowed desire to move meaningfully toward energy independence.
Don't push oil and gas out the door quite yet
So as I indicated above, we really are on an energy banana peel, and it wouldn't take much for us slip and fall. These are the primary elements of our conundrum that cause me to nudge Foolish investors toward well-run majors like ExxonMobil and France's Total (NYSE: TOT ) these days. Believe me: The oil and gas sector is here to stay for a long, long time, and you need to be involved in it.
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