Indeed, this new and highly competitive oil industry should provide investors with dozens of new companies, any one of which could become the energy industry's equivalent of Microsoft or Dell or Apple.

Book - Future Energy

Bill Paul

Indeed, this new and highly competitive oil industry should provide investors with dozens of new companies, any one of which could become the energy industry's equivalent of Microsoft or Dell or Apple.
by Bill Paul

Like clockwork, pump prices have risen roughly 50 cents a gallon each spring since 2003, and they are on track to rise another 50 cents this year. If they stay on track, the U.S. average will be an excruciating $3.40 to $3.50 a gallon by Memorial Day, with parts of California, New York and other states over $4 a gallon.

            Big Oil is making a killing, not because it's doing anything illegal, but because it's taking advantage of a lack of competition. I'm not talking about competition among oil companies but, rather, competition among fuel sources. Simply put, gasoline made from crude oil has no competition as a transportation fuel.

            But that is about to change. A technological revolution is about to radically restructure the energy industry. "Just like the 1990s was the decade for money and innovation in the information industry, we're now heading into a decade of big technological innovation in the energy industry," according to Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs (International).

            This energy technology revolution will create a "new" oil industry in which gasoline made from crude oil is just one of a number of fuels competing for motorists' attention. This new competition should serve to keep pump prices from reaching $5 a gallon or higher in the U.S., which they otherwise would within 5 years. Ironically, it is only because of the recent sharp rise in pump prices that these new technologies have become cost competitive with gasoline made from crude oil.

            Even more ironic, we have OPEC to thank for this revolution that eventually should eliminate the oil cartel's political and economic power over the rest of the world. As demand for gasoline has rocketed in rapidly-developing China and India, it has become increasingly apparent that OPEC states haven't been properly maintaining their oil fields. Western governments' fear of OPEC being unable to meet projected global demand for oil has been as much a catalyst for this energy technology revolution as have rising pump prices.

            In addition to gasoline made from crude oil, motorists will soon have the option of filling up with a variety of biofuels. While corn ethanol will be dominant in the U.S. for probably another five years, technologically more advanced biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol and biobutanol, eventually will take its place. Biodiesel will become a major alternative for diesel-powered vehicles that are found mostly in Europe and Asia.

            As much as 50% or more of every gallon we put into our cars in 5 to 10 years time may be biofuel.

            In addition to filling up with a blend of biofuel and gasoline, motorists will have the option of filling up with electricity, thanks to a new generation of cars and trucks that will run on power obtained simply by plugging a vehicle into an ordinary electrical outlet. Toyota, Honda and DaimlerChrysler are leading what will be a foreign invasion of these new "plug-in" hybrid vehicles that are capable of going 40 to 50 miles or farther on a single charge before the vehicle automatically switches over to a liquid fuel.

Plug-ins should start arriving in dealer showrooms in 2 to 3 years, and when they do, traditional gasoline will suddenly face competition from all the fuel sources that can be used to make electricity - everything from coal and nuclear power to solar and wind power. Environmentally-minded Americans will be able to make their own transportation fuel simply by installing solar panels or roofing shingles and then using that electricity to fill their cars. Security-minded Americans should want to support the greater use of coal and other domestic energy sources.

Yet another alternative to gasoline made from crude oil will be gasoline made from other fossil fuels. While gasoline made from coal or tar sands is technologically not much different than crude-derived gasoline, making these other fossil fuels transportation fuels will introduce strong new competitors for Big Oil, such as big coal companies. Add the competition Big Oil will also face from major agricultural companies making biofuel, as well as from major electric utilities and green power manufacturers, and you've got a completely restructured oil industry where oil companies will have to fight off stiff competition if it hopes to remain dominant.

From a consumer's point of view, the more competition the better. The same is true from an investor's point of view.

Indeed, this new and highly competitive oil industry should provide investors with dozens of new companies, any one of which could become the energy industry's equivalent of Microsoft or Dell or Apple. To be sure, just like with the information revolution, there likely will be many companies involved in new energy technologies that will fail to survive, and so investors will want to be careful. But if investors choose safer investment options, such as exchange traded funds and mutual funds, which concentrate on many companies, they should do well for themselves in the coming decade.

Investors should also check out the list of 100 "companies to watch" that appears at the end of my book, Future Energy: How the New Oil Industry Will Change People, Politics and Portfolios (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2007). The list includes many well-established companies, as well as many start-ups, which should be of interest to investors no matter what their risk profile.

Bill Paul is an independent energy analyst and journalist with over three decades of experience reporting and writing on energy around the world. A former Wall Street Journal and CNBC energy reporter, he most recently appeared as an energy analyst on ABC World News with Charles Gibson and on the PBS TV program "Consuelo Mack's Wealthtrack."


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