NEW YORK (MarketWatch) — While this week’s oil price spike above $100 a barrel and turmoil in the Middle East raises uncertainty about energy supplies, companies in the business of drilling and producing oil continue to fare well in the U.S., but refining operations may find themselves under pressure.
With political violence in Libya causing oil to move into the triple-digit range for the first time in three years, experts are predicting a long period of unrest throughout the region and challenges for parts of the energy sector.
Meanwhile, companies in the business of alternative energy said they noticed an uptick in interest from the financial community in recent days.
Global oil faces 'sea change'
Daniel Yergin, author of "The Prize," sees Mideast turmoil producing major changes in oil markets, with the U.S. and emerging markets most vulnerable to rising prices.
“If you have refining operations, it’s not so great,” said Philip Weiss of Argus Research, pointing out that raw material costs for making gasoline and other fuels will go up with the price of oil. “In general it’s harder for refiners to keep up with rapidly rising prices.”
He said oil service companies will benefit as higher oil prices make it more economically feasible to boost spending on exploration. Companies that specialize in producing oil will also fetch higher prices for their crude.
“If you’re an oil-services company it’s fine because higher prices give your customers more money so they can increase capital spending,” he said. “If you have an exploration and production business, you will get more money for your product. The only note of caution is if gasoline prices move too high you can see what we saw in 2008 — demand destruction — which brings prices down.”
Weiss said ConocoPhillips /quotes/comstock/13*!cop/quotes/nls/cop (COP77.78, -0.26, -0.33%) and Halliburton Co. /quotes/comstock/13*!hal/quotes/nls/hal (HAL45.15, -0.12, -0.27%) remain his top picks after the week’s events.
Amy Myers Jaffe, a Middle East expert at the Baker Institute, said on a conference call hosted by energy research firm Tudor Pickering Holt that Saudi Arabia, the largest oil producer in the Middle East, remains vulnerable to social unrest, stemming from tension between its Sunni leadership and Shiite workers in its oil fields.
Political movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere could impact Saudi Arabia over time, she said on a conference all on Thursday.
“The social trends [in the Middle East] tend to go across the region historically and last for a long time,” Jaffe said. “These social movements and the political aspirations that they express — we’re talking about a long process. We’re not talking about the oil market is going to be unstable for three months and then everybody is going to go home and it’s going to be over. It may flare down for a while and the price of oil may go down based on fundamentals, but there’s going to be the possibility of a flare-up in the background.”
Jim McDonald, chief investment strategist for Northern Trust Global Investments, said he fielded calls from clients this week, “wanting to know what they should do about geopolitical risk.”
His firm remains bullish on U.S. equities, including the energy sector, despite higher oil prices.
McDonald said the recent rise in oil prices won’t create a double dip recession. The S&P 500 remains about 2% below its cyclical peak, pointing toward further gains in the equities market.
“Oil is up $17 since the start of the year and that will have an impact of about 0.7% on growth in GDP [gross domestic product] over the next two years, and that’s not a recession,” he said. “If we saw a $30 or $40 jump to oil prices, that would be much more problematic.”
He said it appears that Saudi Arabia has more than enough capacity to compensate for the loss of Libyan production.
“We’re overweight on energy stocks ... number one, because there’s good demand for energy,” he said.
Energy companies tend to benefit when oil prices rise, up to the point where fuel gets too pricey and customers cut back, he said. That’s not happening at current price levels, even after this week’s spike, he said.
Arnold Klann, chief executive officer of bulletin board-listed BlueFire Renewables Inc., /quotes/comstock/11k!bfre (BFRE0.47, -0.01, -1.67%) said this week’s oil price rise came up in talks with a potential financing partner this week.
Klann said BlueFire hopes to line up $250 million in financing to build its wood-to-ethanol plant in Fulton, Miss., by the end of June.
“We met with traditional financiers and they’re recognizing that this may be the appropriate time to close financing for the plant,” Klann said. “High oil prices may help open the financing window for us.”
He said there appears to be the growing consensus in the energy industry that “this is not a short-term blip” and that this is going to be a long-term situation. “It would not be inconceivable to see $150- or $200-barrel oil this year,” Klann said.
Riggs Eckelberry, chief executive officer of OriginOil /quotes/comstock/11k!ooil (OOIL0.21, -.00, -0.71%) , a specialist in using algae to make biofuel and absorb carbon dioxide emissions, said he’s been expecting a rise in crude prices.
Eckelberry said OriginOil’s partner in Australia, MBD Energy, has drawn strong interest from investors in an algae facility planned near a power plant in Queensland.
“They’re doing a phenomenal job of raising money in a very conservative region,” he said. “That’s a big indicator” that oil prices are helping alternative forms of energy, he said. “This is a tipping point, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.
Steve Gelsi is a reporter for MarketWatch in New York.