A Little-Read Report Reveals BP's Energy Outlook

By David Sterman,

Shutterstock photo

BP's (NYSE: BP ) web site is filled with a wide range of Gulf-spill related updates. The energy giant is overwhelming visitors with frequent updates in a bid to show that it is taking matters quite seriously.

Lost in all those updates, investors may have missed a fairly important annual document that has just been released called the "Statistical review of world energy." BP takes a fresh look at the global oil picture every June, and they've reached some interesting conclusions.

Efficiency Gains are Starting to Take Root

The global economic slowdown led to a hefty drop in energy demand last year, but consumption dropped even faster in economically developed countries in Europe and North America. That's because the West is driving ever-smaller cars, building large solar and wind farms, and adding more intelligence to national electricity grids. The report notes that the "OECD (Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation) consumed less primary energy last year than 10 years ago, although GDP since then has risen by 18%." Just last year, energy demand in Europe and the United States fell by -5%.

Energy produced by wind and solar power grew by +31% and +47%, respectively, in 2009. And we're just getting started. Total spending on clean energy technology is expected to set a record in 2010. As these technologies improve even more during the next few years, the cost/benefit analysis of switching to clean energy will become more apparent.

Notably, much of the current spending is taking place in China, which is also the place where energy consumption is rising the fastest. Chinese central planners have increasingly decreed that energy-intensive export-oriented industries should receive less government support (although those words have not yet been matched by deeds). If China can boost its economy by +5% annually but also increase its dependence on solar, wind and efficiency efforts by a commensurate amount, then its net power demand will stay flat. We're not there yet, but China's energy requirements are starting to grow at a slower rate than its gross domestic product ( GDP ) .

The Gulf's Importance

While the United States has been a massive importer of oil in recent decades, the tide has began to turn. For example, the output from many U.S. coal mines has increasingly been shipped abroad -- especially to China. Coal's long-term role in the global economy remains unclear. Engineers' efforts to search for ways to scrub carbon dioxide out of coal have proven futile, as most approaches are proving quite costly. That said, demand for coal remains strong -- it now accounts for 29.7% of global energy consumption -- and P/E ratios for coal producers remain very low.

Yet it's the Gulf of Mexico which has become the real game changer for energy, at least here in the United States. The estimated amount of untapped natural gas is 50% higher than 10 years ago. Despite the pain associated with the current BP-related debacle, high output in the Gulf has sharply lowered natural gas prices, enabling many energy-intensive firms such as chemical makers and utilities to lower their expenses.

It's not just natural gas output that is rising: "The world's largest increase in oil production by far came from the US, mainly from the Gulf of Mexico," BP reports, adding that "this is not an excuse for anything, but a piece of the reality in which we all live." BP's analysts found that North America held an estimated 69.5 billion barrels of oil in 1999. Even after a decade of heavy oil production, the level of proven reserves has actually risen to 73.3 billion barrels. In Central and South America, proven untapped oil reserves have doubled to 199 billion barrels in the past 10 years, largely due to new discoveries in Venezuela and Brazil.

The United States remains the third-largest oil producer in the world after Saudi Arabia and Russia, accounting for 8.5% of global output in 2009. (OPEC members still account for 77% of the world's untapped oil fields). Sadly, we also accounted for 21.7% of total oil consumption last year. The Obama administration's mandate to sharply raise fuel economy standards should make a dent in that lopsided equation.

The notion that the world is approaching "Peak Oil" is just not supported by the facts. We may still be getting closer to a peak, but the world has far more untapped oil than anyone could have imagined 10 years ago.

Simple Math: Supply Exceeds Demand

Rising oil production and slumping demand yielded a predictable result. "Oil prices declined for the first time since 2001," and fell by the largest amount in Europe and North America on a percentage basis since 1986, notes the report. Oil prices are up from the start of the year and are unlikely to continue that upward move right away. Moreover, even with last year's pullback, oil prices are still three times higher than in 2001. But over time it is increasingly clear that the world has ample energy reserves despite the scary super-spike of 2008.

OPEC states cut output by -7% in 2009, which is fairly remarkable considering the predilection for OPEC members to stealthily exceed their quotas. Whether they maintain that resolve will determine whether oil prices stay in their current range, or plunge.

Major oil companies such as Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM ) and BP are no longer the dominant energy players. Their role in the global energy market has been supplanted by the nationalized oil companies in places such as Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Venezuela.

The publicly-traded oil majors have been in low-growth mode for some time and are best seen as vehicles for massive cash flow generation. These companies have increasingly looked to buy back stock or offer juicy dividends rather than seek new development opportunities. The fields they look to develop are mainly meant to replace declining output from existing fields.

Action to Take --> But a world of stable energy prices can yield some real winners. Airlines, for example, can better manage their funding requirements and are less vulnerable to profit-sapping price spikes. Chemical makers such as Huntsman (NYSE: HUN ) , which was profiled here , can sharply boost their profit spreads. Spending on agriculture can also rise as less fuel is needed to run tractors or make fertilizer. With more cash in their pockets, farmers can buy more farm needs from the likes of Deere (NYSE: DE ) and Monsanto (NYSE: MON ) . Most importantly, consumers will have more to spend on many items if they don't have to fill up their tank with $4 gas.

-- David Sterman
Staff Writer

Disclosure: David Sterman does not own shares of any security mentioned in this article.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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This article appears in: Investing Stocks
Referenced Stocks: BP , DE , GDP , HUN , MON , XOM

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