Energy Stocks Rise as U.S. Sanctions Hit Russian Oil

Wall Street continues to be confused about how to respond to tensions in Ukraine, growing corporate earnings, and weakness in housing. It's a mixed bag overall, and Mondays tend to be slow on market-moving news, another reason we're seeing a directionless market today.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) has been up and down all day, and at 3:30 p.m. EDT was up 0.64% on mixed trading. One part of the market that is doing well is Big Energy.

Energy could emerge a winner
ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) have respectively risen 0.8% and 1.5% today as oil climbed to nearly $101 per barrel. The big news today was U.S. sanctions on more Russian leaders, including Igor Sechin, CEO of state-owned oil company Rosneft, as Washington tries to head off Moscow's desire to take any more land from Ukraine.

Offshore drilling has become more popular for oil companies, but it also raises costs, pinching margins on exploration. Source: ExxonMobil.

Rosneft has a joint venture with ExxonMobil that could invest $500 billion in Russia's energy reserves in the Arctic and Black Sea (where Crimea, the region of Ukraine recently annexed by Russia is located). Rosneft also has interest in ExxonMobil fields in the U.S. and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.  

The reason today's sanctions are so important for both ExxonMobil and Chevron over the long term has to do with the global supply and demand of energy. Europe gets more than one-third of its oil and over a quarter of its natural gas from Russia, most of which passes through Ukraine. As tensions increase, energy becomes a major economic negotiating tool both sides can use; U.S. companies are caught in the middle, for better or worse.

Europe could reduce imports of Russian oil, which would increase demand for oil from other countries, likely raising prices. Sanctions could also hit Russian-owned assets in the U.S., including the Gulf of Mexico, impacting ExxonMobil and the overall oil and gas supply.

If sanctions continue and potential military conflict stays on the table for Russia and Ukraine, I think we'll see oil prices rise. For Big Oil, that's a positive to earnings. Energy majors have seen lower returns on upstream exploration in recent years, as it's more costly to build big projects. Returns haven't kept pace while oil prices have been flat, but this could change those fortunes.

In the short term, the conflict is actually a positive for ExxonMobil and Chevron, even with ExxonMobil's investments in Russia. The country is a huge energy exporter; any sort of sanctions on that oil and gas would have ripple effects, so the conflict is worth watching for energy investors.

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