We are right now looking at the prospect of significant and sustained instability in a region that's home to two-thirds of the world's known crude oil reserves.
The problems will likely get much worse.
But forewarned is forearmed: Even if the Middle East crisis continues to escalate, we can predict how the global energy sector will be affected. In fact, if the crisis reaches the severity that I'm expecting, it will send the world's energy sector through three very predictable phases.
And each of those phases affords investors with very specific profit opportunities – if they know what to expect.
Oil Prices Already Zooming
Both Brent crude (the European standard) and West Texas Intermediate (WTI) – the benchmark for New York-traded crude-oil-futures contracts – are at their highest levels in more than two years.
After crossing the $110 threshold on Wednesday, Brent crude prices yesterday (Thursday) hit an intraday high of $119.75 in London.
And there's no reason to suspect those prices will retreat anytime soon.
Here in the U.S. market, oil for April delivery advanced for the sixth-straight day on Wednesday and temporarily eclipsed the $100 a barrel for the first time since October 2008 – because of worries that the unrest in Libya (the third-largest African oil supplier) would interrupt oil exports from that country.
That streak continued in early trading yesterday: The April oil futures jumped another 3.2% to trade above the $101-a-barrel level in early-morning trading in New York.
Only a week ago, oil was trading at less than $90. And the futures contract curve reveals that traders do not regard this as a short-term problem.
We have an escalating and contango market – one in which each month further out has a higher price than earlier months.
Oil prices are high. And they're going to get higher.
If ever there were doubts that exogenous (outside-of-the-market) forces could dictate trade, the current events will push them aside. The volatility will now kick in big-time – and that will further unnerve the already-skittish trading environment.
Tunisia and Egypt were disconcerting. But the events in Cairo may end up being the exception to the rule.
The unrest in Bahrain and Libya is far more dangerous. The unraveling of autocratic rule in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will not be a peaceful event.
With Libya, we have a major source – and one of the last sources – of light, sweet (low-sulfur) crude. This is most prized by refiners because it requires the least processing expense. There is just one other source. Unfortunately, that happens to be Nigeria – another country not known for its stability.
Libya is descending into civil war. The foreign oil companies have ended their activities there and have begun pulling out most of their personnel. As of 9 a.m. Tuesday, 6% of the country's production was offline.
Expect that percentage to grow.
Europe is directly in the path of this interruption – and will feel the squeeze the soonest – since it is the end-user for about 80% of all Libyan exports.
The bodies in the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi are a harbinger of what is to come. Unlike the army in Egypt, which served as a restraining influence, the army in both Tripoli and Bahrain is a weapon against the crowds and a virtual guarantee of further bloodshed. Neither Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, nor the ruling family in Bahrain, will be leaving voluntarily.
And that means a protracted struggle.
In Bahrain, however, it's possible that something much worse looms.
The "Perfect Storm" Experts Fear Most
In Bahrain, there is oil, but there is also the incendiary religious division – a Sunni minority ruling class against a majority of Shiites. Combine that with the acute economic problems experienced by average people throughout the region, and frustration is leading to rage.
As if that wasn't bad enough, Bahrain – from a strategic standpoint – happens to be located in the worst place for such an uprising.
It's where the U.S. Navy bases its Fifth Fleet, a primary component of U.S. Persian Gulf policy. If the fleet needs to leave, the departure will only feed into the already escalating regional instability.
However, the real problem is this.
Bahrain is a 665-square-kilometer archipelago directly across the water from Iran and connected to Saudi Arabia by a causeway. Tehran has almost certainly started to provide support to a Shiite uprising. But the Saudis will do everything they can to prevent one.
This is because Bahrain connects directly to the eastern province in Saudi Arabia that contains both its principal oil production and a Shiite majority. When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led the Shiite revolution in Iran back in 1979, the Saudis had to use its military to put down a revolution in that province. This time around, Riyadh will not wait for that to happen.
The concern over contagion – the spread of unrest throughout the region – is certainly genuine.
That means the volatility prompted in futures oil prices will be figured into the unfolding dynamic for some time.
The Three Phases of Triple-Digit Oil
There are three overarching considerations here. All three point to higher oil prices. And all three have manifested themselves already this week.
Let's take a look at each of them:
The Primary Hit: This will be taken by those oil majors with exposure to the region, and to the overall impact events in the region are having on the broader oil market.
The big boys will survive, but they will have to counterbalance developments unfolding in such places as Libya with production from other areas. That will take some time.
Watch the well-focused medium-sized and smaller-sized companies – particularly the North American operations. They will be the primary beneficiaries.
The Transitional Phase: The events unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will clearly create at least a near-term inducement for energy-users to transition from crude oil to natural gas. Expect primary natural-gas producers to experience a pop. The longer the crisis persists, the more time the transition between these fuels will have to gather steam.
The End Game and Alternative Energy: The above should also hold true with high-grade-coal holdings and alternative energy. However, there are other factors at work in both sectors. In the first instance (coal), there's the unwinding of the global coal picture, with Australian volume slowly coming back online after severe flooding. In the second (alternative energy), there's the length of time that's required to move significant renewable- and alternative-energy capacity into those sectors where rising crude oil prices would dictate a switch.
Yes, this is another reminder that ultimately we will move away from crude as the energy source of choice. But crises demand more immediate solutions; they rarely allow for a period of needed research and development (R&D).
Finally, at these prices, all sources of unconventional and synthetic oil become attractive – especially if they are outside the region that's coming unglued.
For North America, that means Canadian oil sands and American or Canadian oil shale are once again on the front burner. As the MENA sourcing for conventional crude becomes a rising issue, these alternatives that already are producing closer to home stand as a ready substitute.
It used to be a problem of prices being too low. But at triple-digit levels for crude on both sides of the Atlantic, that is no longer an issue.
If you want to have that same opportunity - to hear what Dr. Moors thinks about the energy sector, the Middle East crisis, or the Obama administration's energy policies - you don't have to wait for his next TV appearance, or his next guest column here in Money Morning. You can subscribe to his "Energy Advantage" advisory service, which will give you regular access to his latest thinking and best profit ideas. For more information on the "Energy Advantage," please click here.]
News and Related Story Links:
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Articles by Dr. Kent Moors.
- Money Morning Special Report:
Egypt Protests Could Lead to $150 Oil.
- Money Morning Special Investment Research:
Egypt's Uprising: Population Growth – Not Politics – Remains This CIVETS Economy's Biggest Challenge.
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- Bloomberg News:
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- Bloomberg News:
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Iran Revolution (1979).
- Yahoo! News:
Gadhafi's hold on Libya weakens in protest wave.
United States Fifth Fleet.
Oil Tops $100 a Barrel.
About the Author
Dr. Kent Moors is an internationally recognized expert in oil and natural gas policy, risk assessment, and emerging market economic development. He serves as an advisor to many U.S. governors and foreign governments. Kent details his latest global travels in his free Oil & Energy Investor e-letter. He makes specific investment recommendations in his newsletter, the Energy Advantage. For more active investors, he issues shorter-term trades in his Energy Inner Circle.