If you're a Fool who even occasionally ventures into the energy space, you probably know about Matt Simmons, a longtime operator of a Houston-based energy investment banking firm, Simmons & Co., who is also an author and lately a seer on BP's (NYSE: BP ) Gulf oil spill.
Five years ago, Simmons cranked out a book entitled "Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy." In it, he contended that the Saudi kingdom's oil reserves don't begin to measure up to generally accepted volumes. That theory will be either refuted or confirmed in the future -- a number of my energy friends aren't buying it -- but more immediately, Simmons' thoughts about the raging Gulf spill won't do anything to bring a smile to your face.
Raising the numbers
For instance, he recently claimed in Fortune that the spill caused by the explosion of Transocean's (NYSE: RIG ) Deepwater Horizon rig is much bigger than had been generally believed. Sure enough, on Tuesday government scientists noted that the gusher appears to be sending oil into the Gulf at the rate of as much as 2.52 million gallons a day, far more than earlier figures indicated. The government has now raised the estimated amount of leaking oil four times.
But Simmons has other thoughts about the spill. To my mind, the most daunting is that the relief wells currently being drilled, and thought by many to be the one surefire way to cut off the oil flow, simply won't work.
He blames structural problems with the pipe, and says that the only way to get the spill under control may be to explode a nuclear bomb underground. That, he believes, would plug the well with melting rock.
Nevertheless, Simmons' other cheery notions include the possibility that nearly half of the Gulf may already be covered by a massive oil lake sitting on the sea floor. He also thinks there may be another bigger leak nearby, although the basis for that contention is unclear. There was a report of a leak on Diamond Offshore's (NYSE: DO ) Ocean Saratoga rig earlier this month, but that report appeared to be only a rumor.
He's touting what?
But let me point out that, despite a career spent making things happen in conventional energy, Simmons is now touting wind as our energy panacea, which may explain why. Indeed, he's currently involved in a wind project in Maine that could produce 50 megawatts. Renewables like wind would be a welcome switch for a number of reasons, but I'm giving it several decades to become even moderately viable.
Moving along, government scientists weren't the only ones expressing their thoughts on Tuesday. Instead, executives from BP, ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) , Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) , ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) , and Shell (NYSE: RDS-A ) had the "pleasure" of responding to questions by members of the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee. As you might expect, BP received the most thoroughgoing roasting during the session.
Lamar McKay, BPs America's President was asked by members of Congress to: 1) resign, 2) commit suicide, and 3) apologize for the perpetually incorrect spill sizes that have been published. McKay refused all of those requests during the session, in which he also maintained that BP's cleanup efforts were going well vis-a-vis the oil on the surface. However, he acknowledged lesser success in dealing with the leak on the sea floor.
We'd do it our way
But McKay didn't receive protection from his peers, who were busy throwing BP under the proverbial bus. John Watson, Chevron's CEO pointed to his company's safety record and expressed a belief that an investigation would show that "this tragedy was preventable." And Exxon's Rex Tillerson said that his company "would not have drilled the well the way they did."
Tillerson also said that he believed that BP's well design deviated from some industry standards and noted that the BP spill "represents a dramatic departure from the industry norm in deepwater drilling ... Tragic incidents like the one in the Gulf of Mexico today should not occur."
Simmons gives BP about a month before Chapter 11 enters its picture. That's a difficult prediction to either support or refute. I continue to believe that Fools should maintain an energy representation in their portfolios, but until the industry begins to settle down, it would make sense to focus on superbly managed companies with global reach like ExxonMobil and Schlumberger.