(Adds that oil prices are over $101 a barrel on growing U.S. consumer confidence; tension in the Middle East.)
BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- The energy industry is in the midst of an evolutionary change driven by technological innovation that has nothing to do with alternative energy such as sun or wind. Instead, it's about new ways of getting at fossil fuels, one of the oldest energy sources.
Fidelity Investments, the Boston-based mutual fund manager, said in its 2012 outlook that the energy sector will be dominated by three trends over the next decade: new drilling technologies for extracting natural gas and oil; a rise in demand for liquid natural gas since it will be in ample supply, is cheaper than other fossil fuels and has lower carbon emissions when burned; and new, offshore exploration and drilling techniques that will open up previously untapped oil and gas reserves.
This comes at a time when political instability in the world's top energy-producing countries, from the Middle East to Russia, threatens supply, and as the U.S. pushes for energy independence, which of course will drive up prices when the economy rebounds and demand strengthens. As evidence of that, the price of crude oil climbed above $101 a barrel Wednesday as encouraging U.S. economic news, in particular a 10 point jump in the Consumer Confidence Index, pointed to stronger future demand. Adding to that is a concern over supply after Iran threatened to block oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow strait that about a third of the world's oil passes through. Since 2000, the natural resources sector, which includes energy, and the utilities sector have been the best performers in the S&P 500 most frequently, with the energy sector the top performer three times, S&P reports. As of Tuesday, energy sector shares were up 3.7% this year, fourth-best out of the 10 industry sectors. Fidelity's analysis was written by John Dowd, manager of the $2.4 billion Fidelity Select Energy Portfolio (FXENX), and five other energy-related funds. His Select Energy Portfolio is down 4.1% this year, but it has a 10-year average annual return of 11.2%, which is just out of the top third of funds in its category in terms of performance, according to Morningstar. Fidelity doesn't reveal its favored stocks, but tips its hand when its suggestions are extrapolated to companies that are involved in each theme and cross-checked with the top holdings in Fidelity's funds. As a result, individual investors could piggy-back off the firm's exhaustive research capabilities to find stocks that fit their own portfolios. Several companies overlap in more than one -- and, in some cases, all -- of these trends, particularly the mega-cap industry giants such as ExxonMobil (XOM - Get Report), Chevron (CVX - Get Report) and Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A),which can use their ample capital to bully or buy their way into leadership in any industry breakthrough. Chevron, for example, has all the bases covered, as this integrated oil and gas company is making a major push into offshore drilling, with projects off Mexico, West Africa and Thailand. It's also beefing up its liquid natural gas production and transportation capabilities, and recently acquired Atlas Energy in a $4.3 billion deal, which gives it a strong position in one of the biggest U.S. oil-shale production fields. An industry driver is the relatively new use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to obtain natural gas locked in rock formations. IHS Global Insight, an economic think tank, reports that that method now accounts for more than a third of all U.S. natural-gas production, and its market share is growing rapidly. Fidelity's Dowd says beneficiaries of fracking are integrated energy producers, drilling firms and energy-services companies. Among the leading drillers and fracking technology servicers are National Oilwell Varco (NOV), Baker Hughes (BHI) and Oil States International (OIS). Deepwater exploration drilling is led by a handful of companies, including Ensco (ESV - Get Report) and Noble (NE). And one firm that should benefit from the rising demand from natural gas, given its extensive network of pipelines criss-crossing the U.S. to most major markets, is Kinder Morgan Energy Partners (KMP). What follows is a synopsis of 15 stocks that might benefit from the emerging themes outlined by Fidelity and other research firms: