In the Energy Decade, Oil Companies Party Like It’s 1979

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The best economic seer of the last decade turned out to be T. Boone Pickens.

Back in 2008 Pickens, an oilpatch fixture since the 1970s, began pushing the idea that natural gas could become a "bridge" to a renewable energy future, and that the U.S. could become independent of foreign oil.

Five years later it's another earnings season in the oilpatch and all seems to be going according to plan. Independent exploration companies are prospering as never before.

Sterne Agee is raising its price target on Whiting Petroleum (WLL), the largest producer in North Dakota's Bakken formation. Energen (EGN), which is now emphasizing the Permian Basin of Texas, delivered strong results, Sterne Agee said. Ultra Petroleum (UPL) will do better as pipeline infrastructure reaches its production in Wyoming, the analyst says. Domestic production from Occidental Petroleum (OXY) was near the top line of Sterne Agee's estimates. Sterne Agee is also keeping its buy rating on Southwestern Energy (SWN), which is turning its gains in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale into new exploration in Colorado.

It's not just the oil producers that are raking in money. Oil services companies like Schlumberger (SLB), Baker Hughes (BHI) and Superior Energy Services (SPN) are all up over 20%. Halliburton (HAL) is up over 35%.

If you're commuting to work in Houston, Dallas or Oklahoma City and worrying about traffic, or if you're looking for work in Williston, N.D. and finding it impossible to get a place to sleep unless you have a mobile home hitched to your pick-up, you know this. This is the best decade for U.S. energy companies, and thus for the whole center of the country from Texas to the Dakotas, since the 1970s.

While most of Wall Street's attention is focused on tech companies like Twitter (TWTR) and Facebook (FB), on futuristic manufacturing companies like 3D Systems (DDD) and Stratasys (SSYS), or on the minutiae of politics and economic policy, the reason for the present recovery can be explained in one word: energy.

Oil production has doubled in the last three years in both North Dakota's Bakken shale and Texas' Eagle Ford shale, to nearly 500,000 barrels/day each. Natural gas production in the Appalachians' Marcellus Shale has more than tripled in the last four years, to over 6 billion cubic/feet per day, according to the Energy Information Agency (EIA). 

And it's not just energy that comes out of the ground that's working. Shares of solar cell maker First Solar (FSLR) are up almost 29% in the last year, despite a recent pullback, and Sunpower (SPWR) is up 45%. If you have energy to sell you can get your price and U.S. companies are all over that.

Hydropower no longer represents the bulk of our renewable energy sector. Texas now has over 12 gigawatts of wind energy capacity and an ongoing investment of $7 billion in new transmission lines should handle another 18. The new lines cost the average customer $6/month, but the new supplies drop costs more than that.

The most important form of renewable energy, however, remains efficiency, and while efficiency has helped drive sales of cars, trucks, motors and LCD light bulbs, the U.S. still wastes more energy than any other country, meaning there's a gusher of new renewable energy and new growth, just waiting to be tapped.

It's ironic that this Republican economy is being seen under a Democratic President and administration policies are drawing no credit for this in the oilpatch. Instead, it's the maturation of fracking technology since 2009 that is taking the credit. The EIA now identifies fracking plays in 31 different states, with promising formations found even in such previously-unexplored areas as northwest Georgia, central Iowa and most of Michigan.

A recent Ernst & Young audit of the oil exploration sector, looking only at the 50 largest producers, found U.S. reserves of oil have grown 52% since 2009, and that rising prices led to a 9% increase in natural gas reserves in 2013 alone. If you don't have some of your money in oil and gas exploration, you're missing out.

At the time of publication the author owned no shares in companies mentioned in this article.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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