As we move into the second half of 2011, it's becoming more apparent that our energy world -- virtually across the globe and certainly in our country -- is in dangerous disarray. We in the U.S. obviously can't correct difficulties in the oil and gas sphere that continue to spread worldwide, and on which we'll elaborate in this two-part series. For starters, our continued failure to generate a logical and comprehensive energy policy at home could place us in the proverbial soup.
Nevertheless, let's take a gander at the 12-member OPEC cartel, which is responsible for about a third of our planet's crude production. You may recall that, in May, I described the group's increasing splintering into one faction led by Saudi Arabia, and another under Iranian leadership. That schism resulted in an OPEC meeting that ended without a resolution last month, when the Saudi group pushed for higher production quotas, a direction that Iran's contingent strongly opposed.
A broken down cartel
But the shattering of OPEC could possibly move beyond merely contentious meetings. Clearly, a potential military confrontation between the leaders of the respective cartel's pairings -- hardly an impossibility -- would propel crude oil to stratospheric levels that would leave us pining for the good old days when $100 crude prices held sway.
Indeed, just the other day, while many of us were preparing for our Independence Day celebrations, The Wall Street Journal detailed in a front-page weekend article a program being conducted by Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corps to supply munitions to its allies in Afghanistan and, yes, Iraq.
Beyond that, U.S. officials concur with those from other affected areas that Iran has played a key role in exacerbating uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen. Each of those countries has seen pro-American leaders either toppled or become the object of intense pressure.
A counter from the kingdom
It's no surprise, then, that the Saudis are in a lather over the spreading influence of an emboldened Iran in the Middle East and North Africa. Last month, a member of the kingdom's royal family, Prince Turki al-Faisal, previously an ambassador to the U.S. and the U.K., hinted that Saudi Arabia would match a push by Iran into the realm of nuclear weapons. In his comments, which occurred on the same day as the failed OPEC meeting, Prince Turki called for Iran to cease meddling in countries with Shiite majorities, like Iraq and Bahrain.
I, for one, have long been concerned about the potential for an Iraq-Iran partnership, once the U.S. military contingent in the former country is further reduced. Both -- along with Bahrain -- are the home of Shiite majorities, which immediately places them at odds with Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. Contemplating such a combination immediately calls into question its potential effects on the likes of ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) , Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B ) , PetroChina (NYSE: PTR ) , and Italy's Eni (NYSE: E ) , all of which are among those participating in a program that has already increased Iraq's oil output significantly.
OPEC's Bobbsey Twins
Beyond the Persian Gulf nations, OPEC's membership includes other countries whose stability is lacking. For instance, Venezuela President Hugo Chavez has long been a pal of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while disdaining the United States. With Chavez apparently in declining health, having recently undergone cancer surgery in Cuba, the future of his country's declining energy production -- a result of his nationalization of the industry in 2007 -- becomes even more open to speculation.
And then there's Nigeria, which despite producing coveted light, sweet crude, has a history of attacks, violence, and kidnappings of oilfield workers by members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. As such, the ability of the Western companies, such as Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) , to safely ply their trade in that country -- especially in its dangerous Niger Delta -- becomes virtually a day-to-day proposition.
Last, but hardly least, this brings us to Libya, a situation about which Fools in the possession of a television are generally well-versed. As you know, the country's civil war has forced the likes of ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) and France's Total (NYSE: TOT ) to cease most of their production and beat a hasty retreat from the war-torn country, thereby reducing OPEC's total production by nearly 1.6 million barrels of daily output. The ability of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi to remain in power is open to question, as is the pace at which the country will return to its prior production levels -- assuming Gaddafi is deposed.
A 50% affliction
I've now mentioned six members of OPEC's contingent that are facing issues of varying degrees of severity. I remember being employed by Pennzoil -- a mid-sized integrated energy company, now a part of Royal Dutch Shell -- at a time when most who were connected with U.S. energy production assumed that OPEC would remain omnipotent and invincible throughout most of our lifetimes.
How wrong we were! Today, as I've discussed above, fully six of the cartel's members (that's 50% in my book) are facing question marks or concerns. Those issues could easily wreak considerable havoc on our globe's energy scene before they are solved. Indeed, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the issue-plagued OPEC countries currently produce about 22.8 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, or about a quarter of the world's demand.
My approach from an energy investment perspective is to focus on ExxonMobil and Chevron among the companies named above. Both are geographically diverse and technologically sophisticated -- an ideal combination for our increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world of conventional energy.
Now, having maneuvered through the world of OPEC, click on this link to read more on non-OPEC countries including Russia for which energy production is or likely will become of significance.
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