The International Energy Agency says that the U.S. will be the world's No. 1 oil producer by 2017 and a net exporter by 2030. New technologies, including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, have enabled oil majors to develop reserves in the U.S. that were previously unreachable, at least on commercially viable terms.
With the U.S. taking on a more central role in the global energy sector, investor sentiment toward oil companies with more exposure to domestic markets has brightened. ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP), for instance, has received more attention in the recent past relative to ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM). The former spun off its refinery and marketing assets in 2012 through the Phillips 66 IPO.
This move allowed the oil major to redirect its efforts to growing production in the U.S. As is, close to 60% of ConocoPhillips's capital budget is allocated to North America. Compared with ExxonMobil, which predominantly has a global approach, ConocoPhillips has been able to share more of its earnings with income investors, signaling greater prospects in the U.S. ConocoPhillips boasts a dividend yield of 3.8% compared with ExxonMobil's 2.6%.
Ideally, ExxonMobil should reduce global exposure and leverage its large size -- a $417 market cap -- to corner the U.S. market. However, this would erode its reputation as a company that perpetually places an emphasis on long-term plays.
Oil prices will rise
Ironically, the iconic bullish run in the domestic energy market was in part driven by low oil prices. How does this work?
The U.S. now imports 39% of its oil consumption, down from 62% in 2008. Reduced dependency on oil imports has put downward pressure on oil prices in the U.S. This downward pressure on oil prices has set off an interesting trend.
The industrial and transport sectors have witnessed reduced costs, enabling them to enjoy greater margins. U.S. oil majors, on the other hand, despite relatively lower margins, have been able to enjoy huge sales volumes due to heightened demand. This win-win scenario has led even the best of sector analysts to support the myopic argument that oil prices will continue slipping or remain low.
There are a number of compelling reasons why oil prices will rise and more importantly, why oil majors with global exposure will gain in the long term.
Australia, China, and Russia, among others, all have plans to expand their natural gas ambitions. According to an Energy Information Administration's mid-year report, China had 1.1 quadrillion cubic feet of technically recoverable shale gas, Argentina 802 trillion cubic feet, Algeria 707 tcf, and the U.S. 665 tcf. Although this snippet doesn't tell the whole story, it clearly indicates that there will be more natural gas finds not only in the U.S. but the world over.
Increased natural gas finds, especially in remote areas, will greatly increase capital expenditures, putting unavoidable upward pressure on oil prices. ExxonMobil, for instance, recently found gas reserves of 2-3 tcf off Tanzania.
The new find, which was achieved through ExxonMobil's combined efforts with Statoil, brings the pair's total gas resources in the area to between 17 tcf and 20 tcf. Despite the size of the finds, a final investment decision is unlikely anytime soon because of high costs and great technicalities. In fact, the U.S. is the only place where a final investment decision on natural gas reserves has been reached so far.
ExxonMobil predicts that global natural gas demand will track upward to 65% over the next three decades, outstripping coal as a source of energy. Increased global demand will allow ExxonMobil to address the cost barriers in Tanzania as well as other areas with vast reserves. This is because meeting this high demand will necessitate the need for a surge in prices in order to accommodate high costs of production. This argument holds for other oil majors in other areas with commercially viable reserves. Inevitably, oil prices must rise.
ExxonMobil's global footprint is reassuring
Through strategic alliances, ExxonMobil has managed to build a formidable global footprint. For instance, in Nigeria, it has partnered with Mobil Producing Nigeria and operates through ExxonMobil RasGas. It also owns and operates refineries in Iraq's Kurdistan region. And it has operations in Qatar through a joint venture with Qatar Petroleum. Collectively, ExxonMobil has refineries in 32 different countries.
ExxonMobil's global footprint gives it a bird's eye view of the entire industry and allows it to rally behind plays that work. In addition, strategic alliances allow it to spread costs as well as risks while filling technical gaps.
This is greatly reassuring considering how dynamic the global energy sector has become.
When global oil prices start trending upward, the U.S. will not be left behind. Investors who are currently underweight the oil sector and overweight distribution and transport sectors will reverse their approach to cash in on increased oil prices. This will fuel huge demand for oil majors like ExxonMobil, which have greater exposure to global markets.
Even around $96 a share, ExxonMobil is a great long-term buy. In view of its strong fundamentals and its alignment with major shifts in the industry landscape, there is still significant upside ahead.
Lennox Yieke has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. 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.