Want Renewable Energy? Stop Fighting Big Oil

Having spent my teen years near the Florida winter home of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, I'm convinced that the men and women on the flying trapeze have an easier gig than those who attempt to forecast our energy future.

But please don't panic. Conditions are far more sound today than they were in 2007, when I wrote a two-part Motley article advocating the formation of a Manhattan Project-type organization to recommend an approach to dealing with what appeared to be dwindling energy supplies.

My, oh my, the world has changed.
Five years later we're sitting atop far more of our own fossil fuel reserves than we had even begun to realize before. This time our troubles relate to precarious geopolitical circumstances that threaten to erupt into military conflagration and a White House that is disdainful of Big Oil and determined to nurse the wobbly world of renewable fuels.

Looking at the effects of international tensions on our gasoline prices, it appears that Daniel Yergin -- an energy oracle and author of The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World -- got it right earlier this month when, in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, he said, "In 2012, the reason [for price increases] is mainly geopolitics," while noting the "market is clearly responding to what it sees as dangers ahead."

He was clearly referring primarily to the potential for a clash between Israel and Iran as leaders of the latter push forward with the development of nuclear weaponry. It's clear that such an outbreak would significantly disrupt the Persian Gulf region and potentially drag into conflict a number of the world's largest powers.

Resource nationalism on the move
Beyond that is the resource nationalism that slowly but steadily is permeating many of those countries blessed with energy assets. Russia, for instance, has long attempted to develop its vast reserves of oil and gas in the face of technological insufficiencies by teaming up with major oil companies from the West. Unfortunately, the country all too frequently becomes unruly with its partners in the process. For instance, a half-dozen years ago Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A  ) was forced to sell a major portion of its assets on Sakhalin Island to the country's giant gas producer and distributor, Gazprom.

As you may know, the most recent country to adopt a sharp-elbowed approach is Brazil, whose offshore territory has been the site of one-third of the world's crude discoveries during the past five years. Just last week the country's authorities took sufficient umbrage at a relatively minor spill from an offshore well being drilled by Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) and Transocean (NYSE: RIG  ) to ring up criminal charges on 16 of the companies' employees. Amazingly, George Buck, the president of Chevron's Brazil operations, now faces the possibility of up to 31 years of incarceration in the country.

What's going on closer to home?
In North America, due mainly to technological advancements, we're far better off from a fossil fuels perspective than we were as recently as a half-decade ago. Despite a less-than-sensible decision to delay approval of the northern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, the possibility for the U.S. to achieve energy independence -- at least from unfriendly countries -- now seems real.

There appears to be an approach to improving our energy picture even further. It harkens back to an article titled "Marketing Myopia" that became a classic immediately after it was published in 1960 in the vaunted Harvard Business Review. As its author Theodore Levitt noted, industries often falter when they view their roles too narrowly in the face of new competitive challenges.

For instance, the railroads saw themselves only as riders of the rails and failed to participate in and benefit from the emergence of cars and airplanes. Similarly, rather than assume a broader scope as purveyors of entertainment, the film studios stood by and let others develop and expand television in the 1940s.

It may surprise you to know that the members of Big Oil hardly suffer from marketing myopia. Indeed, ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , while plying the world in the progressively more challenging search for crude deposits and filling the role of our nation's largest natural gas producer, is involved in a significant partnership that is attempting to develop advanced biofuels from photosynthetic algae. Concurrently, Chevron is conducting programs to leverage its energy expertise in the pursuit of economically and commercially viable, renewable energy opportunities, including solar.

The Foolish bottom line
Meanwhile, our federal government continues to dole out funds to the likes of Solyndra and floundering First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR  ) . President Barack Obama recently said of the Congress, "They can either place their bets on a fossil fuel from the last century or they can place their bets on America's future," while again calling for the repositioning of roughly $4 billion in subsidies for the oil and gas industry to promote clean energy.

Here's a better option: Let's cast aside myopia, corporate or federal, and place our bets on energy broadly defined. If Exxon and its peers are best-equipped and funded to achieve meaningful breakthroughs in renewable fuel development, while simultaneously continuing to develop the oil and gas that realistically will constitute our energy core for eons to come, what better place to cast our bets?

If you agree, I'd urge you to keep close tabs on the companies discussed above by clicking on the links below to add them to your personalized watchlist. I also highly recommend reading The Motley Fool's special free report on "3 Stocks for $100 Oil." These three companies are poised to profit from the world's insatiable thirst for energy, but to find out which stocks our top analysts picked, download this report free for a limited time only.

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't have financial interests in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Transocean. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of ExxonMobil and Chevron and First Solar. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 28, 2012, at 1:18 AM, sliderw wrote:

    The vast majority of companies did not and cannot invent the Next Big Thing that replaces their Current Cash Cow. Kodak, Microsoft, Blockbuster, you name it. Chances are this applies to the oil companies too. Don't count on them to bring us green energy.

  • Report this Comment On March 28, 2012, at 1:48 AM, caburke37 wrote:

    Those scornful of Big Oil companies often cite the large company profits. Its never clear if these are profits before or after R&D, dividends and so forth. Are there any previous articles showing the breakdown of a large oil company's profits?

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