Looking for profits in the oil and natural gas space? Look no further than shale plays, energy service companies and offshore oil drilling opportunities in the U.S., says Byron King of Agora Financial LLC. In this interview with The Energy Report, King discusses how dwindling exports to the U.S. from Latin America, Africa and the Middle East are shifting the supply and demand equation across the world. King also names companies in the service space with solid prospects for investors.
The Energy Report: Byron, welcome. You recently attended the Platts Conference in London, which addressed shifting energy trade patterns in light of growing U.S. export prospects and dwindling exports from South America and Africa. Has OPEC's role diminished?
Byron King: The short answer is yes. OPEC is struggling right now. The Middle East, the West African producers and Venezuela are struggling. The West African players and Venezuela have seen exports to the U.S. decline dramatically. In countries like Algeria, oil exports to the U.S. are essentially zero, while Nigeria's exports to the U.S. are way down. The oil these countries export tends to be the lighter, sweeter crude, which happens to be the product that is increasing in production in the U.S. through fracking.
The east-to-west trade pattern for oil imports to the U.S. has essentially gone away. This does not mean that the oil goes away. It means these countries have to find new markets for their oil—which they are doing, in India and the Far East. But that disrupts trade patterns as well. Imports from the Middle East to the U.S. are falling as well. These barrels tend to be the heavier, sourer crude that U.S. refineries are geared to process.
As the U.S. imports less oil, our balance of trade gets better. The recent strengthening of the dollar has a lot to do with importing less oil. Strengthening the dollar decreases gold and silver prices, so there is some monetary blowback from the good news out of the oil patch. Strengthening the dollar increases the broad stock market for the non-resource, non-commodity and non-energy plays. There's an astonishing dynamic at work.
TER: When it comes to countries like Venezuela, part of the reason for the decrease in exports is because it has not invested its profits in infrastructure.
BK: Good point. In Venezuela, the government has taken so much money out of the oil industry to use for social spending, military spending and government overhead that the sustaining capital is not there. Even with Hugo Chavez's death and new leadership in Venezuela, it will require years of sustained and increased investment to get Venezuela's output up. After 10 years of dramatically bad underinvestment, the infrastructure is worn out. It will take a lot of time, money and some seriously hard political decisions to redeploy capital inside a country like Venezuela.
TER: If OPEC can no longer control the price of oil through supply because it does not have as much control of supply, what is keeping it from flooding the market with oil to get more revenue?
BK: That would work both ways. If OPEC floods the market with more oil, it will drive the price of oil down. Then OPEC nations would get fewer dollars for each barrel. All of that extra output, if sold at a lower price, might still yield less money, which is not a good thing if you are an oil exporter and need the funds.
The big swing producer is still Saudi Arabia. Saudi has spare capacity, but I suspect not as much as it wants people to believe. It gets back to that idea of peak oil. We've discussed it before, and yes, I know—fracking is changing the game to some extent. But you still need to keep all the books about peak oil on your shelf. Fracking is what happens on the back side of the peak oil curve, when you need barrels, are willing to pay high prices and throw lots of capital and labor at the problem.
A country like Saudi Arabia could increase its output, but not for long and not in a heavily sustainable way. It would damage its oil fields. Beyond that, the trick for OPEC is going to be getting several countries to agree to cut output to make up for the extra output from North America, in the hope of keeping prices where they are right now.
Brent crude—which is what the posting is for much of the OPEC contracts—is about $103/barrel ($103/bbl). If OPEC wants to keep that number—or not let it fall too much further—it has to cut output, not increase output. That is a very difficult and politically charged issue within OPEC. The Middle Eastern countries can afford a minor amount of financial turmoil right now. The other OPEC countries absolutely cannot afford financial problems stemming from low oil prices.