The latest uprising in Africa, against one of the world's longest-ruling dictators -- Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya -- and expectations of further unrest across the region seem to be ratcheting up oil prices across the world. Prices of crude oil touched a 30-month high yesterday at $119 a barrel before scaling down a bit. The big question that Fools should be asking here is: Will this unrest ultimately have a substantial impact on the long-term performance of oil stocks?
The answer is: No.
Deal in basic reality
The talk we're hearing in the media these days is all about what exactly the "danger mark" in oil prices is before the panic button is pressed. During the last oil price spike, in 2007 and 2008, this euphemistic button was pressed when oil exceeded $100 a barrel and gas prices broke $4 a gallon.
Companies started putting more emphasis on fuel-efficient cars, green technology started becoming the craze, and consumers started driving less. However, once oil fell back to $75-$80, the good old days were back as if nothing had happened. Not surprisingly, oil companies remained among the top companies in the world in terms of sales throughout. Panic or peace -- it doesn't matter. We're addicted to the stuff.
Therefore, it is highly likely that no matter what happens in the short term, history will ultimately repeat itself. That said, given present circumstances, the scenario might get even worse than it was a couple of years ago. With rumors flying thick and fast that Libya might sabotage its oil flow to Mediterranean ports, and fears of unrest spreading to other oil-exporting countries, stocks around the world are falling quickly, sending markets into a tizzy. But from a fundamental point of view and for shareholders of energy companies, it's unlikely that an oil company's balance sheet will be affected in the long run by the crisis.
Global demand for oil won't diminish. From 1965 to 2008, world oil consumption increased from 11.4 billion barrels to 30.8 billion barrels -- a whopping 170% increase. With emerging countries such as China and India on an upward growth trend and showing no signs of slowing down, demand will only rise. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, China and India will contribute more than 40% of the increase in global energy demand till 2030 on current trends.
There is no foreseeable shortage in world oil reserves, either. Even though it's obvious that the Middle East boasts of a substantial chunk of global oil production, new reserves being discovered in Canada, Brazil, and Russia (and the Arctic), along with modern technology to extract oil, will negate the short-term tremor in the oil market soon.
Of course, it's possible that many oil companies will experience short-term pressure on margins and earnings thanks to unrest in many of their most critical extraction markets. But any reasonably long-term thinker has to acknowledge that these will be merely temporary glitches.
It's a fact that global producers such as BP
In terms of timing, the biggest question that arises is how long these Arab states, along with their African counterparts, will actually be willing to withhold supply -- given that their economies are largely dependent on oil and other petroleum products. In reality, there's nothing crazy about a change of government. The boat will undoubtedly get rocked as the oarsmen change, but no government will risk losing out on money when it comes to oil. These nations and their citizens are ultimately too dependent on the revenues that come from them.
Just wait for the tide to turn
It's a tough call for the time being, but as fears ease, investors need not worry much. Until and unless a time-tested alternative for fuel is discovered (which we're years away from at best), oil will have its run and investors will succeed along with the black stuff. If you're thinking about running away from your oil stocks, try to see past the short-term noise and into the long-term petroleum-dependent future.
Isac Simon doesn't own shares of any of the companies mentioned in the article. Chevron is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. The Fool owns shares of ExxonMobil. 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.