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Will Oil Prices Be Catapulted by Mali Malevolence?

Given the increasing tendency of the U.S. media to eschew all but the most unavoidable of international news, it's likely that until this week a majority of Americans, if asked about Mali, would have begun discussing critters in their tropical fish tanks. Now, however, we all realize that Mali is an landlocked African country, and that it's the site of a conflagration that has spilled over into neighboring Algeria -- an OPEC member -- and could easily lead to a catapulting of crude prices.

You likely know about events in both Mali and Algeria during the past few days, so I'll only note the key items:

  • Mali was hit by a military coup last March, an event that has materially weakened its army and created something of a vacuum in the country.
  • That vacuum has been partially filled, especially in the northern desert, by militant terrorist groups, mostly from other countries. Some apparently are tied to al Qaeda. The main unit calls itself "Signed-in-Blood."
  • Several days ago, France began to conduct air strikes in Mali (using Algerian air space) in an effort to drive out the terrorists. More recently French troops have been unleashed in the country.
  • On Wednesday, terrorists from Mali stormed a natural gas facility in eastern Algeria, taking several dozen hostages -- the most frequently used number is 41 -- from several countries. The gas facility is owned by BP (NYSE: BP  ) , Statoil (NYSE: STO  ) , and Algeria's state-owned Sonatrach.
  • On Thursday, Algerian forces launched an operation to free the hostages. It's still not known the numbers of captives that were freed or perished.

A continuing conflagration?
With French operations ongoing in Mali, and ancillary support coming from the U.K., the U.S., and others, the key remaining geopolitical and energy-related question involves whether the terrorists -- who apparently are well-armed and well-funded -- will be able to maintain an outpost in the country. If they are, an even more significant concern becomes whether they will use the desolate northern desert as an outpost from which to launch other attacks, especially on energy facilities in North Africa and even the Middle East.

Indeed, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday: "Instability in Mali has created the opportunity for a staging base and a safe haven for terrorism." And columnist Charles Krauthammer noted similarly on national television: "Our number one task is to be certain that the terrorists don't have a haven in the no-man's land, because once established, they will be a threat to every country in North Africa and the Middle East."

An important change
Early on Wednesday, it was thought that the raid on the gas plant was a response to permission being granted to France to use the North African country's airspace to facilitate sorties to Mali. Subsequently, however, it became clearer that the raid was well-planned and well-financed, and thereby had likely been in the works for some time. The significance of the newer contention is the fear that more attacks may be in the works.

While Algeria managed to avoid most of the Arab Spring, perhaps because, unlike its neighbors, it's an "upper middle income" country, according to the World Bank. Nevertheless, much of the 1990s in the country were taken up with a protracted conflict with Islamist rebels, the cost of which was an estimated 200,000 lives.

A big country with sweet production
With 919,595 square miles, Algeria is the largest country in Africa, the Arab world, and the Mediterranean Basin. It is bordered in the northeast by Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began two years ago. To the east lies Libya, and to the west is Morocco. Mali, of course, is to the southwest, and other bordering countries include Mauritania and Niger. Much of the Sahara Desert is included in the southern portion of the big country.

Algeria is the fourth-largest oil producer in Africa, after Nigeria, Angola, and neighboring Libya. In 2011, it averaged production of about 1.88 million barrels a day of oil liquids. Like Nigeria, the country produces high-quality light crude with a minimum of sulfur and minerals contents. The largest foreign oil producer is Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC  ) , which has a total capacity of more than 500,000 barrels per day from its operations in the Hassi Berkine South and Ourhoud fields.

About 750,000 barrels of crude were exported by Algeria in 2011, of which the United States was the largest single importer at about 510,000 barrels daily. Also of importance, Algeria is the third-largest supplier of natural gas to Europe. The country is the site of several new or developmental gas projects, including the $1.3 billion Menzel Ledjmet East project, which is under the leadership of Italy's Eni (NYSE: E  ) .

The Foolish bottom line
Suddenly the big Mediterranean country, which has recently been something of an afterthought vis-a-vis the likes of Libya and Egypt, has become very much front and center. While no one can predict the likelihood of additional imminent terrorist "adventures" in any part of the world, especially North Africa or the Middle East, in the past week Foolish investors have been given additional reasons to carefully oil their portfolios.

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