You've clearly noticed that, with the Middle East having returned to more widespread chaos, crude prices, which had slumbered during the first half of this year, have headed straight north. Indeed, during just the past month, as our European friends have begun rejecting Iran's oil, black gold trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange has moved steadily from about $80 a barrel to near $91.50, an increase of more than 14%.
Given the increasing geopolitical uncertainty and escalating metrics, is it time for carefully re-oiling your portfolio? In the process, should you be revisiting the likes of ExxonMobil
After all, you've been spared a painful increase at the gasoline pump thus far, and, as a nation, we're heading away from dependence on other countries for our crude supplies. Or are we?
A muddled Middle East
Before we examine our own exploration, production, and regulatory climates, let's take a quick gander at the goings-on in some of the world's other oil-producing hot spots. I've already mentioned Iran, the rogue nation that continues its bellicose behavior toward much of the rest of the world. That country's disruptive element appears to be worsening rapidly. On Wednesday, a bus full of mostly Israeli tourists was bombed in Bulgaria, killing at least seven and wounding more than 30. Israel immediately blamed Iran, its longtime nemesis. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintained that, "This is an Iranian terror attack that is spreading throughout the entire world. Israel will respond with force." For my part, I'm taking him at his word.
We, as Israel's primary ally, have been using the expanded embargo of Iran's crude, along with the country's previous threats to close down the Strait of Hormuz, as a reason to reinforce our military presence in and around the strait. In the past few weeks, we've injected numerous ships and warplanes into the area. And while Israel had softened its rhetoric amid a series of meetings between Iran and a group of international powers that are attempting to convince the mullahs, et al., to discard their nuclear ambitions, Netanyahu's comment signals a return to his "Don't tread on me" posture.
I'll skip over Egypt, which is also beginning to percolate with heat supplied by a standoff between the Muslim Brotherhood and the country's military. Proceeding to Syria, circumstances in the area's latest tinderbox continue to decline. Indeed, it's beginning to appear that dictatorial President Bashar al-Assad may be in a more precarious situation than had previously been thought. Since his minority Shiite regime is closely allied with both Iran and Russia, the country's contretemps are hardly beneficial to hopes for a calming in the Middle East region.
Our questionable independence
In contrast to that area's quagmire, isn't the U.S. producing more crude than recently was the case? Haven't we become a net oil exporter? Hasn't the U.S. energy scene become increasingly hunky-dory by the day? The answer is a hearty "yes" and "no."
What follows is an economic statement, not a political one: While the energy picture in the U.S. -- and certainly in North America -- has clearly brightened in the past few years, nevertheless, increasing regulatory interference at the federal level threatens to unravel the progress that's been made, largely by a stream of technological advancements. Here's what I'm referring to:
- The Obama administration, largely in the form of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, has been fulsome in praising itself for increased U.S. Outer Continental Shelf oil production since 2008. However, 2011 OCS production fell off 11% from 2010. And any increases from 2008 necessarily must be attributed to the prior administration, when the related lease sales and permitting occurred. Furthermore, our current record natural gas production is virtually all occurring on private and state lands.
- In 2008, President George W. Bush scuttled a longtime ban on drilling along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and scheduled a 2011 lease sale that was to include acreage offshore Virginia. The Obama administration delayed the sale until 2012, and then placed off-limits for five years all areas off the East Coast.
Royal Dutch Shell
has been endeavoring for five years, at a cost of about $4 billion, to gain permission to drill in the Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea off Alaska, projects that together would create approximately 55,000 jobs each year for a half-century. Unfortunately, the company continues to run into one federal roadblock after another in its quest for drilling clearance. (NYSE: RDS-B)
proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would run for 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada, to a group of U.S. Gulf Coast refineries, was blocked by President Obama in January. The ostensible reason? It was said that the line would endanger Nebraska's Sand Hills Ogallala aquifer. Despite the submission of a revised proposal by TransCanada, there's been no forward movement on permitting the pipeline, which had previously been judged to be safe by the U.S. Department of State, following three years of analysis. Should the pipeline continue to be blocked, TransCanada just might adopt a second alternate route to carry the crude to Canada's West Coast for subsequent transport to China. (NYSE: TRP)
The Foolish bottom line
I could go on, for instance describing efforts to conduct an energy policy by turning the taxation screws on proven oil and gas producers, while tossing taxpayers' funds at ne'er-do-well solar manufacturers. Or I could elaborate on the Environmental Protection Agency's overzealousness. But I think you get the picture: Both the international and domestic energy arenas are more precarious than any of us might have thought.
This makes for an ideal time for portfolio re-oiling, perhaps starting with the largest of them all, ExxonMobil. At the very least, I urge you to let the big company serve as a proxy for the industry by immediately adding it to your individual version of the Fool's My Watchlist.