It's daunting to realize that crude oil prices have worked their way up from about $50 a barrel earlier this year to $96 today despite relatively restrained behavior by the energy world's bad actors.
Appearances can be deceiving. Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- OPEC's rambunctious Bobbsey twins -- continue to team up to foment more than a little energy-related discontent.
Their misdeeds have so far had little impact on the world's crude prices, but it's easy to see that the pair could have a profound influence on the world's energy picture. Let's look at what they've been up to lately.
Just this year Chavez removed or forced contract renegotiations with six of the world's biggest oil companies that operate in Venezuela's Orinoco basin. Three companies were ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) , Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) , and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) . Partly as a result of this, Venezuela's crude production has dropped from 3.1 million barrels a day to today's level, about 2.4 million barrels.
And according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Venezuela has pulled back on capital projects at CITGO, the U.S. refining and marketing subsidiary of Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), its state oil company. Rather than plowing money back into facilities upgrades, it appears that CITGO's profits are going back to the homeland to help finance the socialist revolution. Some of its assets are being sold, including last week's disposal of a U.S. asphalt manufacturing unit.
For those of us in the U.S. who buy gasoline, this is not good news. CITGO currently owns about 5% of U.S. refining capacity. The last construction of a refinery in the U.S. was in the late 1970s, and neglect of existing facilities could result in higher gasoline levies for us Fools and our friends.
Chavez said he intends to pursue a nuclear energy program in Venezuela, perhaps with the aid of Brazil and Argentina. He also said he'd like to acquire as many as a dozen reactors; and this idea has generated international skepticism.
The reason: In addition to Venezuela's abundant hydrocarbon reserves, three-fourths of the country's electricity needs are met by state-owned hydroelectric plants. Is this a nation needing help to keep the lights on?
But it's the new Chavez-Ahmadinejad mutual admiration society that's most sobering for energy watchers. In the summer of 2006, Chavez spent two days in Iran and pledged that Venezuela would "stay by Iran at any time and under any condition." At about the same time, Ahmadinejad maintained that he had "met a brother and a trench mate after meeting Chavez."
Twelve months after that visit, Iran awarded Chavez the nation's highest honor, the Islamic Republic Medal, in a ceremony at Tehran University. The award was bestowed for Chavez standing by Iran during its nuclear confrontation with the international community.
And last weekend Chavez, in an opening address at a rare summit of the heads of OPEC's member nations, warned the U.S. that an attack on Iran would result in a surge in crude prices worldwide. In issuing his warning, Venezuela's Castro wannabe said that a U.S. attack on his pal Mahmoud's country would result in crude prices being hundreds of dollars, and "not just 100."
At the end of the same summit, Ahmadinejad urged his fellow cartel members to convert their financial reserves into a currency other than the declining U.S. dollar. He called the dollar a "worthless piece of paper" and blamed its decline on the policies of President Bush.
The real message here is that OPEC's de facto leader, Saudi Arabia, is experiencing more and more challenges from the cartel's bad boy Bobbsey twins. The goal of the summit, as Saudi King Abdullah had intended, was to deal with the issues of the oil industry and the environment -- but his intentions were thwarted repeatedly by eruptions from the twins.
So, along with tightening conditions of supply and demand, the West must monitor the movements of the Iran-Venezuela duo, a combination that could easily, in a variety of ways, send crude prices much higher. Given the quiet precariousness of the 13-member OPEC group -- none of whose members, other than Saudi Arabia, is powerful enough to contest the pair effectively -- the energy world should be wary of this emerging alliance.
Fools would be well advised to maintain a meaningful energy quota in their portfolios, including not only producers, but perhaps international oilfield service players such as Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB ) or Halliburton (NYSE: HAL ) , as well.
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