Three Cheers for High Oil Prices

Updated from 6:00 a.m. EDT to include a correction.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- In many ways the current recovery is a lot like the last one. Housing is a theme. Banking is a theme. To some extent technology is a theme. The Fed is pumping a lot of money into the economy, and thus the value of assets, priced in money, goes up.

But in one very important respect this recovery is very different. Back in the 2000s, a rise in the price of oil could stop economic growth in its tracks. This time, it's a sign of growth.

That's because the U.S. is now producing more of its own energy than at any time in decades. Natural gas remains in glut and is priced at a fraction of the world price, benefiting American manufacturers of all kinds. Oil that isn't used here is increasingly turned into refined products and exported, meaning it generates even more than the $108/barrel it fetches when it's brought up to the surface.

All this oil and gas is making some Americans very wealthy. Landowners in Texas are driving shiny new pick-ups. ( They almost ran over my Scion last time I was there, and I think they were laughing when they did it.)

It's especially important to note this fact now, with West Texas Intermediate oil, the U.S. standard for crude, having nearly eliminated the spread between it and Brent North Sea oil, generally seen as the world price. At almost $108/barrel, you're talking about $2.57 per gallon of oil. If you're getting a royalty on production in Texas' Eagle Ford shale, that could be $24.30 in your pocket for each 42-gallon barrel.

You can get into this game right now by buying oil exploration stocks. Southwestern Energy ( SWN) recently had its estimates raised by Sterne Agee, and the stock is up almost 25% this year. EOG Energy ( EOG) is also up over 26% this year.

Many income investors are playing in this sector through Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs). MLPs are meant to extract value from oil-related assets, and have some tax advantages. Among those I've written about this year are Kinder Morgan Partners ( KMP), which is yielding 6.4% per year in dividends at current prices.

High oil prices also create huge incentives for renewable energy, and the cheapest form of renewable energy is efficiency. The Edison Foundation sees efficiency cutting electricity demand by over 100 Terawatts per year, pushing carbon emissions to what the EPA called a 20-year low last year.

Money that saves money pays for itself. Even if you're replacing the 12 mpg Ford ( F) F-150 you bought in 2002 with a new 17 mpg model you're getting nearly a 50% improvement in gas mileage, and at almost $4/gallon, that is a big help in financing the purchase.

High oil prices create incentives to change appliances, to get new heating and air conditioning systems, even to change out your light bulbs. This is what General Electric ( GE) has been betting on for a decade, and it's finally getting some traction, with the stock up 17% so far this year.

When most people think of renewable energy, of course, they think of wind power and solar power, and companies like First Solar ( FSLR) up over 50% during 2013. Lawrence Livermore Labs estimates solar energy production in the U.S. increased 50% during 2012, and there was six times more wind power produced here than that. Wind and solar are still just 3.5% of the total utility generation market, but with total demand falling and supply increasing, the trend is clear.

A lot of people say the stock market is up only because the Federal Reserve is pumping money into the economy, through Quantitative Easing. Money is fuel for any economy, but if there's no return on that investment all you get is inflation. When you get production, when money makes money, then you get prosperity.

So next time you gas up, celebrate these high prices. And when you make investment decisions, remember that celebration. What meant a brake on growth a decade ago means prosperity today, and that's a trend that won't change soon.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

As originally published, this story contained an error. The original story stated that a barrel of oil contains 55 U.S. gallons. In fact, a barrel of oil contains 42 U.S. gallons.
Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and a tech reporter since 1982. His specialty has been getting to the future ahead of the crowd, then leaving before success arrived. That meant covering the Internet in 1985, e-commerce in 1994, the Internet of Things in 2005, open source in 2005 and, since 2010, renewable energy. He has written for every medium from newspapers and magazines to Web sites, from books to blogs. He still seeks tomorrow from his Craftsman home in Atlanta.

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