Lingering environmental concerns aside, hydraulic fracturing -- aka, fracking -- has generally been good to the U.S.
Natural gas prices have dropped to less than a third of their pre-fracking levels, benefiting both those whose power is derived from the clean-burning hydrocarbon and industrial companies -- such as Dow Chemical -- that use it as a feedstock. And as the technology has morphed to the creation of several key unconventional oil plays, our nation's need to import black gold from frequently unstable countries has plummeted.
Try as they might ...
But outside of North America, how many other global locations have you heard about where fracking is beginning to have an even remotely similar effect? Oh, sure, lots of places have high hopes for its successful application, but in most of those spots, hope and reality are thus far very different phenomena.
Still, it's worth asking whether the U.S. is likely to remain fracking's primary beneficiary.
There was some surprising success demonstrated during 2011 in England, where privately held Cuadrilla Resources used fracking to find gas along the country's northern coast. But when a pair of small earthquakes followed close behind, the government ordered a moratorium on fracking.
Earlier this summer, Cuadilla was able to initiate operations in the village of Balcombe in West Sussex, south of London. But by early this week, environmental demonstrations had caused the company to pack up its tools and clear the site. It's noteworthy that Cuadrilla is chaired by Lord John Browne, until 2007 the CEO of BP (NYSE:BP).
A Polska exodus
Not long ago, there was a lot of optimism for fracking in Poland. A number of western companies had initiated operations, and the hope was that gas discoveries would be sufficiently sizable to extricate the country from a dependence on Russian supplies. But now, Marathon (NYSE:MRO) and several other companies have pulled out of Poland after coming up dry in their exploratory efforts. Chevron (NYSE:CVX) is virtually alone among U.S.-based companies continuing to dig in the country.
Today, Chevron is also among those crossing corporate fingers regarding the potential for unconventional drilling in Argentina's promising Vaca Muerta play. And you may be surprised to find out OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia is contemplating a fracking program. The difficulty there lies in the thirsty nature of fracking, with millions of gallons of water often required to frack a single well. It likely won't shock you to learn that the desert kingdom is hardly awash in aqua.
Are all shales equal?
Just last year it was ExxonMobil's (NYSE:XOM) CEO Rex Tillerson's turn to toss a little cold water on the potential for fracking outside the U.S. "Some of the shales don't respond as well to hydraulic fracturing," he told a gathering of analysts. "It's going to take research and time in the lab to understand that."
Possibly pointing to Poland, which his company had recently departed, Tillerson added, "Parts of some of these well-known shale plays everyone's all excited about don't work." Exxon is currently attempting to achieve fracking success in both China and Argentina.
There are other circumstances that may thwart fracking-induced natural gas and oil booms in other countries. For instance, even with increased surveillance from the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. continues to operate within a regulatory framework that permits companies to attempt new approaches to exploration and production. That's not the case in most other nations.
Further, basic contract rights in our country permit landowners to lease their mineral rights and thereby participate in the spoils of successful unconventional drilling. In addition, we have an exemplary infrastructure that renders it far easier to move produced hydrocarbons to market. And finally, there's the above mentioned need for substantial amounts of water for fracking operations. That necessity could hinder the Chinese, along with the Saudis, as they try to duplicate U.S. successes.
The bottom line
What does all this mean for Foolish investors? There's a host of companies virtually making history by accelerating successes tied to domestic fracking. Just as they're benefiting from their efforts, you can profit from owning their shares.
Fool contributor David Smith owns shares of BP p.l.c. (ADR). The Motley Fool recommends Chevron. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.