But looking back at a previous boom - the California Gold Rush of 1849 - gives investors a good clue about where prospects might be better.
During the gold rush, many miners ran up into the mountains seeking riches. Few succeeded. But those who opened up shops that sold the picks, shovels, and other mining equipment made a fortune.
That principal is just as true today in the U.S. shale oil boom, says Money Morning Global Energy Strategist Dr. Kent Moors.
Exploration and production companies won't get a top producer out of every well they drill. But they'll have to buy lots of equipment for every well they drill in their quest for the best strikes.
The companies that manufacture and distribute the drilling equipment may not be as sexy as the oil and gas exploration companies, but they will profit from the boom just as much - if not more.
The Best Investments Lie in the Oilfield Services Boom
Analysts at Deutsche Bank believe oil service stocks are under-owned by investors, especially in light of what they expect to be increased spending by energy companies on equipment in the latter part of 2013.
And in a report published earlier this year, business intelligence firm GBI Research said booming exploration and production spending will lead directly to the global oilfield services industry climbing significantly in value over the next several years.
GBI forecasts the oilfield services industry, led by the shale boom, to grow from $152 billion in 2012 to $213 billion in 2017.
Increasing demand from emerging economies, GBI said, will spur the search for new energy supplies, and enhanced technologies will allow oil companies to search in previously unreachable places.
All three segments of the oil and gas industry - exploration and evaluation, drilling, and completion and production - stand to gain, with completion and production as the biggest winner.
Oilfield service companies are clearly among the best investments in energy; fortunately there are several good ways to play this sector...
The Best Oil Service Plays
If you prefer a broad, less risky approach, then exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are the way to go.
Both funds are trading near their respective 52-week highs. OIH is up more than 20% year to date, while XES is up about 17%.
For those with a somewhat higher risk tolerance, Moors knows of some of the best investments among individual stocks in the sector.
The biggest oilfield service companies should get a big lift from the boom, Moors said. That includes Schlumberger Ltd. (NYSE: SLB), Halliburton Co. (NYSE: HAL), Weatherford International Ltd. (NYSE: WFT), and Baker Hughes Inc. (NYSE: BHI).
These firms have been buying up smaller oil and gas equipment makers to achieve better economies of scale.
The Barclays analysts also like the large oil service firms. They emphasize that these companies will profit from their strong intellectual property positions regarding oil service technologies, which is vital to getting hard-to-reach deposits out of the ground.
For example, Halliburton is rolling out a so-called frac fleet of drilling operations that could save the industry roughly $2 billion a year in expenses.
The technology uses a combination of compressed natural gas (CNG) and diesel, saving money on expensive diesel fuel. The company's goal is to eventually use "field gas" to power the equipment, which would save the industry $4 billion by eliminating diesel costs entirely.
But the best investment in this sector, according to Moors, is National Oilwell Varco Inc. (NYSE: NOV).
He calls it the "one company that stands to benefit most directly from what is happening in the equipment sector."
NOV is also one of the few standalone providers of oilfield services that has not been acquired by one of the industry mega-giants.
Note: The shale oil boom may have started in the U.S. and Canada, but now has begun to spread to many other parts of the world. Here Dr. Moors describes some of the best investments in energy outside North America -- oil and gas companies that possess the expertise needed to exploit these vast new resources.
- Money Morning:
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- Yahoo! Finance:
Wall Street Analyst Calls Oilfield Services Stocks Very Underappreciated
- ASD Reports:
Global Oilfield Services Industry to Top $200 Billion by 2017
- ETF Trends:
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- Breaking Energy:
Tech Advantages Favor Big Three Firms in Oil Services