Russia and Ukraine's recent tussle over natural gas has caused oil prices to spike $2 a barrel in recent trading. Why would a disagreement over Russian natural gas cause such a spike? On a short-term basis, Europeans are probably seeking alternative sources on the world market. On a long-term basis, the spat spotlights our precarious energy position.
Without rehashing the whole story, Russia and Ukraine are in a row over natural gas. Russia claims that Ukraine has been buying gas below prevailing market rates, and it's made a bold move to dramatically increase that price. Experts on the region's politics believe that Moscow is trying to punish Ukraine for last year's "Orange Revolution," which ousted a pro-Russian government. The spat has reduced the flow of natural gas to Western Europe, either because the Ukrainians have been siphoning off the gas they need, or because Russia has been cutting the supply, depending on which side you believe.
I've written about Peak Oil, and how 2006 could be the year when world oil production declines. However, even if production does keep pace with demand, the oil patch should remain a good investment. North American players should do particularly well, since they provide secure hydrocarbon sources for our increasing energy needs.
The ongoing Ukrainian debacle highlights the problem quite well. After all, Russia is supposed to be one of the more stable suppliers in the marketplace. Yet its autocratic government has proven quite willing to use the country's natural gas as a political weapon. This really makes me wonder how attractive Gazprom
Looking at the rest of the world, the soon-to-be-open Iranian oil bourse will trade in euros instead of U.S. dollars -- using the country's oil as a political weapon against our currency. Hugo Chavez has always been willing to use Venezuela's oil to his political advantage. Evo Morales, recently elected populist leader of Bolivia, is open in his praise of Chavez and Fidel Castro and has indicated that he plans to nationalize Bolivia's natural gas industry. Across the Atlantic, Angola and Nigeria, with their promising reserves of offshore oil, seem to be in constant political turmoil. Lest we get too depressed, Libya has recently opened its doors to Occidental Petroleum
Those are only a few reasons why North American producers have a decided advantage. Our friends in Canada have the largest reserve of hydrocarbons in the world, and will be increasing their supplies for decades to come. Deepwater in the Gulf of Mexico remains a promising front for increased production, despite the risk of hurricanes. In addition, smaller inland players still have plenty of opportunities to develop oil and gas fields that are too small to be meaningful for the giants.
When looking overseas, however, recent events in the Ukraine remind us that the energy market is filled with political risk. Investors should take that into account before buying shares of an emerging market player.
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Fool contributor Robert Aronen owns shares of PetroChina.