It's doubtful that it'll simmer down anytime soon. I'm referring to the contentiousness about fracking and the notion that the prolific oil and gas production technique can damage drinking water. Indeed, that claim may even be spreading. Nevertheless, this year's slide in natural gas prices, which resulted in the likes of Chesapeake (NYSE: CHK ) diminishing its production, has almost surreptitiously been reversed during the waning days of summer and the arrival of autumn.
You may or may not have heard that, just last weekend, demonstrations against the perceived ravages of fracking were conducted in a host of North American cities, and in South Africa and France. But they didn't involve the sizable crowds that are apt to garner attention from even the most sympathetic members of the media. San Francisco, for instance, drew a whopping 50 demonstrators who beat a path along the waterfront to the Golden Gate Bridge, many carrying banners expressing their disdain for hydraulic fracturing.
In thinly populated Geauga County, Ohio, slightly more than 30 citizens were rustled up for an obviously token anti-fracking festival. In Pittsburgh, fracking fighters signed a petition demanding a shale gas drilling stoppage. And protestors in Buffalo, N.Y., beseeched Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking, apparently not having been informed that such a moratorium remains in force in The Empire State, although its days appear to be numbered.
Freezing fracking in France
Negative sentiments about fracking have been more successful in France, where still-new President Francois Hollande recently reaffirmed his country's own moratorium. As The Wall Street Journal noted last week in an editorial cleverly entitled "No Fracking, We're French," the country appears to sit second only to Poland among European nations in the amount of its technically recoverable shale gas. Hollande's edict is being challenged by Total (NYSE: TOT ) and a group of affected labor unions.
Indeed, Hollande's prohibition against fracking has been extended to an illogical conclusion: a halt in the issuance of licenses for conventional drilling as well. It seems that about 100 exploration licenses for drilling the old-fashioned way have been blocked by Hollande's minions.
Production in Poland?
While Bulgaria and Romania may also be adopting France's fracking fears, the bigger companies are active in much of the rest of Europe. In light of its purported gas reserves leadership -- along with its desire to affect a release from the grip that Russia has on most of Eastern Europe -- Poland has cut shale drilling deals with a host of major companies. And in Ukraine, Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) , which has been buying up leases across Central Europe, is involved in discussions with local leaders who, like the Poles, are eager to loosen their shackles with Russia, which has treated its neighbor rather roughly in recent years.
But even in amicable Poland and Ukraine, it's hardly certain that the drilling and fracking will prove to be as fruitful as in North America. ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) has pulled in its horns in Poland following disappoints with its first two wells. In addition, oil field services major domo Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB ) maintains that the expenses involved in drilling a shale gas well in Poland costs nearly triple the amount needed for a comparable depth in the U.S. And European wells typically must to be drilled to a half-again greater depth than those on our continent.
Beyond that, even if gas rushes forth from Central and Eastern European shale, it would be more than a little problematic that Russia controls the region's pipelines. It also turns out that several of the countries that are optimistic about uncovering their own natural gas are signatories to contracts with Russia's Gazprom, some of which are good for another quarter-century.
The Foolish bottom line
What's all this mean for energy investors? For my money, we must return to the U.S. for a positive response. You may have noticed that, with minimal fanfare, natural gas prices in our country have jumped by about 60% since they sat near $2.00 in the spring. At the same time, I find it difficult to contest some Wall Street predictions that the average price for 2013 will approach $4.00. Indeed, I would offer that it's a better bet that next year's prices will exceed that level, rather than they'll fall short of it.
As such, I urge Fools to monitor the successes -- or lack thereof -- of the efforts of the big companies working in Europe. But it clearly could require years for any meaningful conclusions to emerge from fracking activities across the pond. But since ExxonMobil remains the biggest producer of U.S. gas, I'd strongly suggest ascertaining that the Texas-based behemoth is included on your version of My Watchlist.