This is one of the few times in the past several years we can say that ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) is one of the worst performing stocks in the world of oil. Even comparing it to its peers in the integrated space, Exxon has the nefarious title of being the weakest stock in terms of total return.
Of course, results like this just don't happen in a vacuum. There are plenty of reasons why investors should shy away from Exxon, but there is one reason why investors may want to reconsider. Let's take a look at the one asset Exxon has that could completely turn things around.
The Final Frontier
There is one place in the world where oil exploration has yet to take foothold: the Arctic -- and for good reason. The combination of an extremely harsh environment, drilling depths not yet achieved, and non-existent infrastructure has left much of the Arctic region relatively untouched. Let's also not forget about the risk of an oil spill in this region. The risk of an oil spill in the Arctic is so great, even major oil companies like Total (NYSE:TOT) have come out publicly and said they will not drill for oil in the Arctic because of the potential costs associated with a spill there -- but Total does have big plans for natural gas there.
Today, though, many challenges are less of a hurdle than they once were. Receding Arctic ice levels has granted access to previously unreachable regions as well as lengthening the drilling season. Also, we are seeing unprecedented advancements in offshore drilling. This past quarter, Baker Hughes (NYSE:BHI) drilled the deepest well in the history of the Gulf of Mexico at a depth of more than 36,000 feet, more than the height of Mount Everest! Slowly but surely, the opportunity for drilling in the Arctic is becoming more and more a possibility.
The reason that so many are tempted by what seems to be an unattainable region is the vast quantities of oil and gas there. A study conducted by the US Geological Survey back in 2008 estimated that the Arctic still had approximately 412 billion barrels of oil equivalent yet to be discovered, more than four times the total proved reserves the United States has today. Access to these massive resources in an economical manner would completely change the energy outlook for the entire world.
Get it right
Oil companies looking at drilling in the Arctic are acting like skinny dippers on a frozen lake. Once their feet hit the water, they pull back. ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) has suspended its Alaskan drilling plans for the time being, and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A) has put its exploration program on hold after it spent $5 billion in the Chukchi only to get a grounded rig out of it.
One thing is certain, these companies want to make sure that they are doing this the right way, and this is where Exxon has a clear advantage over the rest. Through a joint venture with Russian oil giant Rosneft, Exxon has access to over 300 million acres off the Russian coasts in exchange for a 25% stake in Exxon's Point Thompson project in Alaska. This puts Exxon way ahead of the rest in terms of developable acreage. Combined, the US and Russia hold more than 70% of the potential oil and gas in the Arctic, and partnering with Rosneft will also provide a well-financed partner to help bear the brunt of the massive capital expenditures that will be required to make this a reality. The ability to raise capital will be a huge aspect of any development for this region because estimates put developing these fields at around $500 billion.
If Exxon and Rosneft can successfully monetize these assets, it could be a monumental amount of oil and gas for both companies that could secure their financial futures for several years.
What a Fool Believes
There is one corollary to this for investors. This is an extremely long time horizon that could take several years before realizing any sort of gain from it. Therefore, unless you plan on buying Exxon with an extremely long-term focus, then this project will probably not be on your radar. There are other key drivers that should keep the Exxon engine running for the foreseeable future, but the Arctic will play a larger and larger part of Exxon's future as we start to develop more effective methods to exploit these resources.
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