Most energy-price predictions today expect crude oil either to remain within a trading range or to move up significantly during the next year or two. Nevertheless, since our world will clearly be powered largely by fossil fuels during at least the next two or three decades, solid energy names should remain a vital component of any well-structured portfolio.
Beyond that, the oil and gas portion of the group can be roughly subdivided among the major companies, the independents, and oilfield services. Obviously, the major integrated companies offer product and geographic diversity that permits them to benefit from improving plays worldwide, while providing a degree of protection from the negative effects of geopolitical shenanigans or structural problems. (Say, for instance, Nigeria and the 2010 Gulf of Mexico tragedy, respectively.)
The Left Coast's big oil
Take California-based Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) , for instance. While it's all too often considered a little brother of ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) , it's ludicrous to refer to a company with more than 130 years under its belt (during which time it's acquired such sizable operators as Texaco, Gulf, and Unocal), 58,000 folks in its employ, and a market cap greater than $200 billion, as anything but one big dude.
Looking at the all-important diversity of its operations, it's easy to see that Chevron's passport received more action last year than Lady Gaga's. In addition to projects onshore and offshore North America -- more on them later -- Chevron is the only large international oil company currently working in Saudi Arabia. It's leading an effort to produce heavy oil from the Partitioned Zone, which is shared by the Saudi Kingdom and Kuwait. Furthermore, it has interests in three developed or planned petrochemical facilities in the Kingdom.
In Russia, its ties include an investment in the Caspian Pipeline Consortium and several oil and gas exploration and production partnerships. The company also continues to discuss a venture in the Black Sea with Russia's big Rosneft oil company.
In addition, Chevron, along with Exxon and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) , has been selected to search for gas reserves in Poland. The country may contain as much as 187 trillion cubic feet of shale gas. Successful development would permit Poland to reduce its dependence on resources from Russia. At the same time, Chevron has recently won the rights to conduct a shale gas exploration effort in a possibly large play in northeast Bulgaria.
Before returning to North America, I'll remind you that Chevron is the major player in the huge Gorgon liquefied natural gas project off Western Australia, where it has a 47% interest, versus 25% each for ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B ) . Chevron is also has the principal position in the Wheatstone gas project, also offshore Australia.
What gives in the Gulf?
If you scoured Friday's Wall Street Journal, you recognize some of the frustrations with which Chevron and other companies must now grapple in the Gulf of Mexico. The company is working diligently to meet an ambitious schedule to increase the production from its big Tahiti field, 190 miles from New Orleans. The field, which was discovered nearly a decade ago, is 58% owned by Chevron, with the remainder held by its partners, Total (NYSE: TOT ) and Statoil (NYSE: STO ) .
Following two years of production, Tahiti's is current output producing about 109,000 barrels of oil per day -- accounting for nearly two-thirds of Chevron's Gulf production. The company intends to increase that figure by 50,000 barrels daily within the next couple of years, and to reach a global production rate of 2.79 million barrels of oil equivalent this year, 1% above the 2010 figure.
As the Journal noted, also in Chevron's plans for the Gulf are the startup by 2014 of two other big ultra-deepwater fields, Big Foot and Jack/St. Malo. Among the company's challenges in meeting its targets, however, is compensating for the nine-month drilling suspension that hit the industry following BP's (NYSE: BP ) huge blowout and oil spill from its Macondo well. While an Obama administration-mandated deepwater drilling moratorium was canceled in October, the first post-accident permits covering in the Gulf weren't issued until February.
Today, Chevron has accumulated 10 exploration and development plans for the Gulf, and has about 15 applications for drilling permits pending. The pokey pace of permit issuance results from the Interior Department's new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulations, and Enforcement being understaffed, and still finding its way after its post-tragedy formation.
Wood Mackenzie, the respected Edinburgh-based energy consultants, expects the plodding permitting pace to diminish Gulf production by about 375,000 barrels of oil a day this year, and for normalcy in activities in the important venue to potentially resume in 2013. As a result, Chevron may attempt to make up ground by contracting additional rigs beyond what otherwise would have been the case.
I won't go into detail regarding Chevron's activities in Alberta, Canada's oil sands or its recent entry into the Marcellus shale through its acquisition of Atlas Energy. By now, you're no doubt getting the idea that this is a widely spread, technologically sophisticated member of Big Oil. I will suggest, however, that, with an eye toward an ongoing demand for solid energy prospects, you add its name to your personalized watchlist.