Where the Growth Is in Oil

Fortunes are being made in North Dakota right now as a result of the oil boom there. Not only the oil producers but pipeline operators, railroads, oilfield services providers — and numerous companies benefiting indirectly from the crude bonanza are making out very well.

Oil production is also booming in some other unlikely places. Tracking the trends in national and regional oil production could help investors identify related investment opportunities that may arise. This could be an oil company with operations concentrated within a specific area, or an exchange-traded fund for a country whose oil production and exports are growing rapidly.

According to the 2012 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, nearly 20 countries saw double-digit growth in oil production from 2006 to 2011. The table below shows the 15 countries with the highest percentage oil production growth over that time.

International oil growth table

Source: 2012 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

The global percentage leader over the past five years was Colombia, which grew oil production from 559,000 barrels per day in 2006 to 930,000 bbl/day in 2011. This increase is even more impressive considering that armed conflict was taking place in the country throughout the period, with guerrilla fighters regularly attacking oil fields, taking hostages, and demanding payment from oil companies operating in Columbia.

Pacific Rubiales Energy (TSX: PRE) is the fastest-growing private oil company in Colombia, and one of the major drivers behind the gains in Colombian oil production. It’s an exploration and production company with expertise in heavy crude oil and natural gas that’s also active in Peru.

But as investors in Brazilian oil giant Petrobras (NYSE: PBR) have learned, investing in South American oil companies can be risky. PRE shares have suffered a similar fate as those of PBR over the past year, falling 26 percent over the past 12 months. PBR shares fell 32 percent over the same time period; by contrast shares of Chevron (NYSE: CVX) increased by 19 percent.

Many of the entries in the table above wouldn’t come as a surprise to most readers, but few would have likely guessed at Colombia’s position on the list. Further, countries like Peru, Thailand, and India don’t readily come to mind as oil producers, but all three made strong percentage gains from modest totals during the period. Investors wishing exposure to Peru and Thailand’s oil industry will find limited offerings, but India has a number of publicly traded oil companies.

It may also be surprising to see that major oil producers like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Canada did not make the list. Each of these countries did increase oil production over that time period, just not enough to make the top 15. In terms of volume, the US led all producers with a 1 million bpd increase in production from 2006 to 2011. Iraq ranked second with a production increase of 800,000 bpd.

Countries showing major percentage declines between 2006 and 2011 include Libya (-74 percent ), Denmark (-34 percent ), the UK (-33 percent ), and Norway (-27 percent ). Of those countries, Libya’s production should eventually see a strong rebound.

Within the US, most people could guess that North Dakota would be near the top of the list. Indeed, the table below shows that state with a whopping 435 percent increase in oil production in 2007-2012. (The five-year period ends in 2011 for international production data because 2012 data are not yet available.) But the largest volume gainer was Texas, which saw production rise by 900,000 bpd to reach just under 2 million bpd on the back of strong growth in the Eagle Ford shale and Permian Basin.

Twenty-eight of the 50 US states showed some oil production during the five-year period, with big percentage gains coming from a number of non-traditional oil producers like Alabama and Michigan. Pennsylvania was once a major oil-producing state, and production there is once more on the rise, primarily as a byproduct of the natural gas fracking boom that is taking place in the state.

Surprisingly, since part of the Bakken Shale lies underneath the state, Montana was one of the biggest losers during the period with a 25 percent decline in oil production. I expect that as the Bakken continues to be developed, Montana will reverse course and see some gains in oil production over the next five years.

Oil Production Increases in US States from 2007 to 2012
National oil growth table
Source: Energy Information Administration

While these tables identify areas that are seeing strong growth in oil production, keep in mind that money can be lost even as production is growing. I’ve previously pointed out that US ethanol production has grown exponentially over the past eight years, yet many ethanol companies operate on the edge of bankruptcy. Likewise, once again Petrobras has shown that oil production within a country can show strong growth (Brazil was 9th on the international growth list) and yet the major oil company operating within a country can flounder. So these tables can be useful guidelines to indicate where action is happening, but investors must still be selective with the companies they choose.

Around the Portfolios

Chicago Bridge & Iron (NYSE: CBI)

The recent Growth Portfolio addition is down 6 percent on the day and a quick 10 percent since since our recommendation last month as widespread selling of commodities and related stocks continues. Our timing could have undeniably been better. But investors in resource plays know that days like these will happen. The important question to ask is whether this signals the end to the recent uptrend in the energy space or a routine correction leading to higher highs.

It certainly wouldn’t make sense to hold many, or perhaps any, energy stocks ahead of a global recession. And certainly anyone already so inclined could argue that slippage in the rate of China’s growth from 7.9 percent to the 7.7 percent reported last night is a harbinger of worse news to come, as the biggest driver of the global crude demand struggles to sustain waning momentum.

But that would simply be bending reality to match a couple days’ price action after a big run. In fact, Chinese energy demand has remained robust, and there is no evidence that consumers in the developing world will be satisfied with a fraction of the energy use common in richer countries. Meanwhile, the two largest developed economies, the US and Japan, are running aggressively expansionary monetary policies after years of subpar growth. This is not a recipe for a crude collapse.

Even after today’s whopping, CBI shares have retraced less than half of their rally over the last four months, and the longer-term picture still looks bullish, as it does for other energy proxies. For example, the Energy Select Sector SPDR (NYSE: XLE) has merely returned to the bottom of the recent trading range, 9 percent above its price on Dec. 28. The correction came just as the XLE was pushing up against its post-crisis highs from two years earlier, and those highs could still give way this year.

CBI is also getting hit because Australia’s Woodside Petroleum has canceled plans for a $50 billion LNG export plant on Australia’s north coast, a project on which the company had done a lot of preliminary work and in which it was expected to play a big role. Woodside cited runaway development costs that made the project uneconomical. It still plans to exploit the giant offshore gas deposit nearby, but perhaps with offshore processing instead, down the road. It was one of several prominent recent cancellations of big capital projects in the resource space, and one that will cast a long shadow over CBI given the company’s reliance on LNG projects for a third of its income.

But CBI’s extensive order backlog should see it through for the near term, while in the long run demand for energy infrastructure can only grow given the ever more rapid shifts in the location of the resource plays and processing technologies. That’s not the tale the stock is telling today, but it’s fact that will be just as true tomorrow.

Nabors Industries (NYSE: NBR)

When last we checked in with the ailing contract driller, its anything-but-shareholder-friendly board had just awarded CEO Anthony Petrello $60 million in a compensation-scheme overhaul in which he relinquished rights to bonuses based on the company’s cash flow. That structure created the incentives that have saddled the company with heavy debt. Now asset sales are the order of the day. And, coincidentally, the board has become much more responsive to shareholder demands, at least when they come from the company’s largest shareholder.

Earlier this month, it warded off the threat of a proxy fight from activist investment firm Pamplona Capital, which has taken a 9.3 percent stake in the company. One of Pamplona’s nominees, a corporate energy lawyer, will join the board this year with Nabors’ blessing, and another in 2014. According to Pamplona’s chairman, Nabors has also committed to a strategic review, in addition to promising not to trigger its “shareholders’ rights” poison pill should Pamplona raise its stake to just shy of 15 percent.

Given the longtime failure of Nabors’ board to exercise its oversight responsibilities, an infusion of fresh blood there can only help. And perhaps the lavishly rewarded CEO will uncover some heretofore hidden value in the strategic review. Significantly higher natural gas prices would be another catalyst. On a trailing cash flow basis, Nabors looks cheap. But of course it’s already proven that cash flow isn’t the only metric worth following.

— Igor Greenwald

Stock Talk

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