This oil industry player is benefiting from lower oil prices

Intertanko: Lower oil prices have doubled our profits

While much of the oil industry is bleeding from low prices and oversupply, one segment is getting a boost.

Oil tankers, which are ships that carry oil and petroleum products, have benefited in recent years.

Nikolas Tsakos, chairman of Intertanko, the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, and the CEO of Greece-listed Tsakos Energy Navigation (TEN), said that the low oil prices haven't been a negative.

"The lower the price of oil, the more demand for our services. So any price under $60 is a comfortable level for a lot of demand," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box." "We've seen a very good market from the end of 2014, the whole of 2015 and this year the market has been positive, however, not to the levels of 2015."

As oil becomes less expensive, demand for it tends to rise. That may not benefit producers much, but companies involved in transporting the oil can see benefits.

Tsakos noted his company has seen a large bump up in profit. In the fourth quarter of 2015, TEN said its net profit rose nearly three times on-year to $39.6 million, totting up a full year net profit of $158.2 million, up nearly five times on-year. The utilization of the company's fleet of an average of 48.6 vessels in the fourth quarter, was at 98 percent utilization, the company said.

Oil and petrochemical refinery, Kaduna, Nigeria.
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The industry benchmark, the Baltic Exchange Dirty Tanker Index, was hovering around 723 on Wednesday, according to the Lloyds List Intelligence website. That's off a peak of around 1,016 touched at the start of 2016, but still solidly above levels below 600 touched in 2013.

Oil prices have tumbled from levels over $100 a barrel in mid-2014 to as low as under $30 a barrel earlier this year before recovering to around $50 a barrel in Thursday's Asia trade.

Tsakos said more boats will be coming into the market for the rest of this year and next, but new vessel supply will drop off in the following years. He forecasts rates will come back up after early 2017 as long as oil remains under the $75 a barrel psychological demand level.

The industry is also benefiting from sea changes in oil routes as it pursues ton-mile growth.

"We did not expect the U.S. [to go] from a net importer of oil," to an exporter, Tsakos said. "We were building ships to service imports in the U.S. and now the same ships are starting taking exports from the U.S."

The traditional route taking oil from West Africa to the U.S. east coast has also unwound, he said.

"That was a traditional trade since the inception of the tanker market in the last 50 years," he said. "This was reversed in 2014, which has created much more ton miles for us. So we're moving the same oil. Instead of a two-week voyage from West Africa to Philadelphia, we're going from West Africa to China and India."

The booming business of oil tankers

Voyages to Asia are longer hauls, and can be a big catalyst for rates.

There's another positive for the global fleet: Cheaper oil drives up demand, but it also drives down fuel costs. Like other modes of transportation, fuel is a top expense for ship operators, and the current cheap fuel environment has translated into a tailwind for earnings.

Tankers also became a means of floating storage, as some energy companies and traders stored their supplies in hopes of locking in on higher future prices from a market in contango, where the futures price is higher than the spot price.

Morgan Brennan contributed to this article

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—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1