Has the Gulf Spill Opened Pandora's Box for Obama?
The White House might be gaping in shock that the US federal court overturned the six-month drilling moratorium, but it really isn’t all that surprising. Amid the finger pointing and political posturing, the Obama administration seems to have missed a vital detail – the US oil industry is in a spot of bother.
It’s not just America’s oil supply and energy security that’s in danger after the BP oil spill and the subsequent drilling ban. The Gulf economy is hanging by a thread, and it won’t take much to send it over the edge.
Thousands upon thousands of rig workers were effectively laid off when the 33 rigs operating in the Gulf stopped drilling. The full economic impact of the ban is still unrealized, with the layoffs just starting, but estimates put the figure for lost wages as high as US$330 million per month.
Given the potential economic losses, BP’s US$100 million compensation fund for rig workers starts to look rather paltry. It doesn’t end there either. There’s a domino effect in play as well – each rig job supports up to four additional jobs for cooks, supply-ship operators, and those servicing the industry.
And should the drilling ban become permanent, the consequences could be dire. Just like the towns that died in the Upper Midwest after the demise of the auto plants and steel mills, the entire Gulf Coast – where deepwater drilling is crucial to the economy – could fade away.
All in all, not the best news for a country whose economy can be best described as fragile at the moment.
There’s also the question of America’s energy security. The Gulf accounts for up to 30% of all the oil produced in the country. Should the Gulf be put off limits, that shortfall has to be made up from somewhere. Obama’s renewable energy might be the future, but it’s not up to the challenge of meeting the needs of the present.
And attractive, viable options are far and few in between. Russia may be a friend now, but its tap-twisting history with gas in Europe does not strike up a positive note. The Middle East is hardly America’s best friend, not to mention its royalty structures, which leave much to be desired. And in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez just recently nationalized 11 oil rigs belonging to a US company.
In the end, only two real options are left in the hands of the US – the oil sands of Canada or rethinking the drilling ban.
A revised drilling ban would still see higher taxes on each barrel produced and tighter regulations for companies coming to the Gulf. Any lease application would come under intense scrutiny and face higher insurance rates. For smaller companies interested in the Gulf, the rising production costs mean that the death knell has been sounded.
Option two is the friendly neighbor to the north, Canada. The country already plays a big role in U.S energy. One in every six barrels of oil consumed daily in the US comes from the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. The oil sands are pretty controversial stuff, however, associated with derelict, broken landscapes and carbon emissions.
But this is an image that’s going to change very soon. The future of oil sands is here: they are cost effective and their face is green. Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) pumps steam into the ground to liquefy the bitumen and stiff crude oil, making it thin enough to be pulled out of the ground. No giant holes or toxic tail-ponds – just two horizontal pipes, one above the other, puffing away efficiently.
That the Gulf spill is a game-changer for the US oil industry is yesterday’s news. For now, it’s about making ends meet. And while we expect the US to shift towards renewable energy, and maybe even rethink its energy use, for now there’s an unmet demand that’s not going anywhere.
As far as an investment portfolio goes, both options bring with them opportunities. If the US federal court allows a somewhat watered-down version of the drilling ban, the long delay means that there’s potential to pick up some great stocks at a cheap price. On the Canadian side of things, there are some well-run companies perfectly combining cash-flow and SAGD technology. The Gulf spill might be Obama’s Waterloo, but for the careful investor, the winds of change could just blow in a fortune.