Energy independence is a concept that has been around for decades.
Since the oil embargoes of the 1970s to the present day, getting America off the black gold pumped from under the sand, water or forests of foreign countries has been given a lot of talk but not much action.
It’s been only recently that people and companies have become serious about alternatives.
Part of the reason is because most of the world’s “easy oil” has been extracted. The conventional “elephant” fields in places like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Mexico are now past their peak. Saudi Arabia has now produced 40 percent of its proven reserves.
Sure, they’ll still be productive for another couple decades, but it’s not as easy as it once was. What’s more, many of wells tapped into the big fields were not managed properly when the oil was easy and now getting every last drop is tougher and tougher.
There’s also the fact that emerging economies are now vying for the existing oil supplies. The only thing that has reined in prices and demand at this point has been the global economic recession.
And The New Global Middle Class
Not only China and India are moving up the economic ladder (and that’s more than 2 billion people) but other Asian and South American countries are interested in the products that petroleum provides (plastics, fertilizers, shoes, textiles, construction, etc.) aside from gasoline.
This is going to be the biggest driver in coming years. And it’s why many developed and emerging economies are actively looking for new ways to cope with the energy demands that are looming on the horizon.
Below are a few sectors that have cropped up in recent years that are finally changing the words “energy independence” into actions.
Fracking For Freedom
In the United States, new drilling and extraction technologies have created a boon in “unconventional” wells. U.S. oil production was booming for many years, but poorly managed wells and lack of technology meant that drillers were extracting only about 10 percent of the oil in most wells.
But now, new technologies have meant there’s a new boom in the United States. Two of the most important new technologies are horizontal drilling and fracturing hard shale deposits deep in the earth and extracting the oil and natural gas that has been locked in these shale deposits.
Fracking, as it is called, is a new boom. There is a land rush under way in the shales all around the United States as drillers begin to unearth these precious reserves.
Estimated U.S. oil shale reserves total an astonishing 2.6 trillion barrels of oil many times the stated reserves of Saudi Arabia. This energy bounty is simply too large to ignore any longer, assuming that the reserves are economically viable. And yet, oil shale lies far from the radar screen of most investors. And estimates for natural gas reserves are just as astounding.
In the age of unconventional drilling, the United States is a huge, untapped market for energy once again.
Top Plays In The Space
As this trend matures, there are going to be upstream and downstream winners beyond the drillers themselves. And in this kind of dynamic growth environment, drillers can be the riskiest betters of all, since their fortunes lie in finding good properties and maintaining production for success.
Two more interesting plays are:
U.S. Silica Holdings, Inc. (SLCA) is the second-largest producer of commercial-grade silica (quartz sand) in the United States.
Fracking operations mix either silica sand, resin-coated sand or ceramic material into fracturing fluid to act serve as a proppant. The material enters the fissures created during the hydraulic fracturing process and literally props them open so that the cracks don’t close once the pressure is removed.
Producers must use sand that meets certain standards for shape, size and resistance to crushing. The most common proppant used in the oil and gas industry is high-grade silica sand, which accounts for about 80 percent of the market. Meanwhile, resin-coated sand—silica sand coated with a resin to makes it smoother and more crush-resistant—accounts for another 10 percent of the market.
The U.S. horizontal rig count serves as a good gauge of demand for commercial-grade silica. Horizontal drilling is one of the key innovations that enable producers to unlock the hydrocarbons trapped in low-permeability formations. By drilling laterally off a vertical shaft, producers expose the well to more of the productive layers.
Over the past three years, the U.S. horizontal rig count has soared to more than 1,150 units in early 2012 from a low of 372 rigs, a trend that reflects the frenzied development of shale oil and gas plays.
U.S. Silica will see its business grow as the rig counts mount.
A little more than a decade ago, oil man and business legend T. Boone Pickens started to build an integrated natural gas company that would support natural gas vehicles (NGVs), from golf carts to tractor trailers. It was called Clean Energy Fuels Corp. (CLNE).
You also might recall that in 2008 Pickens started an organization called The Pickens Plan, which continues to be a force in developing energy independence in the United States. Pickens planned to build a gigantic wind farm in the Texas panhandle and began promoting domestic natural gas as an alternative to imported oil and a bridge to renewable energy resources.
CLNE was the first step in the integrated energy concept, which isn’t a surprise coming from lifelong oil man. It’s also not surprising that building wind farms means buying a lot of land that also may have strategic value for oil and gas reserves.
And while The Pickens Plan continues to forge ahead, CLNE is the interesting story of note now because it has become a vertically integrated force in the natural gas industry. From refining operations to distribution to engine conversions (BAF Technologies) to commercial and consumer filling stations (Northstar), to financing the fleets and the filling stations (CE Finance), CLNE has built a network of subsidiaries across North America to make natural gas vehicles more accessible and practical.
The stock has been linked to the fortunes of natural gas prices but the fact is many industries and companies are now converting to natural gas from other fossil fuels. That means in coming years demand will be huge for CLNE products. Don’t wait until then to jump on board.