How to Play the World's Wavering Oil Scene

We're just a few weeks past the first anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohammad Bouazzi, the Tunisian fruit vendor, who unknowingly began what's come to be called the Arab Spring.

Now, as we move into 2012, and except for Syria and occasionally Egypt, the hordes of demonstrators have disappeared from the streets of the Middle Eastern and North African countries where they rampaged last year. What remains are concerns about the nature of the new governing factions that will take root in places like Egypt and Libya.

OPEC's passel of problems
Nevertheless, despite the appearance of relative tranquility in the area that produces much of the world's crude oil, a more widespread analysis indicates a global energy picture that today is more precarious than it was in the early days of 2011. Take OPEC, for instance. Of the 10 most prolific oil producers in the cartel -- leaving out Qatar and Ecuador, the latter of which produces less than half the output of the state of Texas -- at least five of OPEC's members are highly insecure from a political or geopolitical perspective. Specifically:

Iran. In addition to stirring up many of the world's developed and developing nations in its role as a would-be nuclear power, Iran of late has been making a show of conducting naval maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz, through which nearly 20% of the world's oil travels. In the process, it's test-fired surface-to-surface missiles, which Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has labeled an intent "to deter the world from continuing sanctions against it."

Further, on Tuesday the country warned the U.S. against returning a Navy aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. That admonition, which U.S. forces are highly unlikely to heed, followed by two days an announcement by Iran's atomic energy agency that the country's scientists had produced its first fuel rod.

Iraq. Almost immediately, as the last of the U.S. military forces were leaving Iraq and the nearly nine-year war was officially declared over, that country's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, began flexing his muscles in the face of minority Sunnis and Kurds. Maliki is obviously attempting to tighten his hold on the government.

As such, my primary fear continues to be the effects of a potential pairing of Maliki and largely Shiite Iran. Almost certainly, ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and a host of other major international oil companies that are working to shore up Iraqi oil production -- along with help from Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB  ) and numerous other service providers -- would be forced to skedaddle form the country as Iran helped itself to Iraq's oil.

The next step could easily be a conflagration with Iraq's other neighbor, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia. This series of events, which clearly would call out the world's major powers, while sending global crude prices to the levels reached by Iran's missiles, would have been far less possible a year ago, when U.S. forces were still providing a semblance of adult leadership in Iraq.

Nigeria. China's Sinopec (NYSE: SNP  ) , which, along with several other major companies, produces a desirable form of light, sweet crude from Nigeria, has become accustomed to attacks by a group of southern tribesmen who bill themselves as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND. Now, however, the country is operating under a state of emergency following intensifying attacks by Boko Haram, a radical Muslim sect that was responsible for 42 deaths on Christmas Day alone. As the group's influence spreads from northeastern Nigeria across the country, its effects could soon shake the oil-producing south.

Venezuela. As long as Hugo Chavez remains at its helm, and if you'll pardon my mixing a pair of metaphors, Venezuela will continue to qualify as OPEC's fantasyland. You'll recall that in 2007, Chavez nationalized oil-production operations in the country's Orinoco basin, which had been coming along quite nicely under the tutelage of a group of major companies, including ExxonMobil. Most of the other companies acquiesced, but Exxon, which has always been better at playing hardball than its peers, left the country and, through an international arbitration panel, demanded $12 billion in compensation for its assets.

That demand was eventually lowered to $7 billion, and yesterday the panel awarded the company a whopping $908 million, an amount that'll no doubt egg Hugo on as he continues to expand his nationalization program. In addition, he's now treading in the world of medical miracles, having accused the United States of finding a way to induce cancer in several Latin American leaders.

Libya. You also know about Libya, and NATO's recent role in dispatching its longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. A year ago, Gadhafi was the unquestioned leader of the country, and while he was anything but beneficent, he nevertheless was a known quantity. Today, numerous unknown tribal and regional groups and factions are jockeying for the top spot in running the country. Your guess is easily as good as mine -- or perhaps better -- in predicting where this oil-producing North African country is headed.

Russia's rocky road
I could continue describing wavering non-OPEC countries, such as Russia, where, as in Saudi Arabia, 10 million barrels of oil are being produced daily and where BP (NYSE: BP  ) has just wiggled out of a partnership in Sakhalin with state-run oil company Rosneft. Indeed, Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , the second-biggest U.S. integrated producer, also severed a partnership last year with Rosneft.

You get the picture though: For a host of environmental, bureaucratic, financial, technological, and climactic reasons, it'll always be tough for Western companies to make a go of working in Mother Russia. And with substantial opposition to the regime of presidential candidate Vladimir Putin having sprung up of late, increases or decreases in the country's traditional instability also should be entered in the "unpredictable" column for now.

The Foolish bottom line
All this leads me to suggest that Fools take a close look at Chevron. While the company is working in Nigeria and Venezuela and is currently involved in a skirmish in Brazil, unlike most of its peers it's thus far stayed out of Iraq and Russia. Conversely, it's the only major company with upstream operations in Saudi Arabia, and it's the top dog in Australia's burgeoning LNG scene. Beyond that, it's both well managed and technologically sophisticated. For these reasons alone, I urge you to at least include Chevron on your version of the Fool's Watchlist.    

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Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Chevron. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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