Green shoots of optimism are poking through the parched ground of the oil patch lately as industry focuses on the aftermath of a downturn they hope has troughed. But the US E&P sector that emerges from the latest carnage will be different as business models will be forced to change.
With crude oil hanging just shy of $40/b, industry-watchers say capital is still available to survivors of the downturn that are in relatively good financial shape. But lending criteria will be stricter as more will be asked of borrowers and production hedges may be more prevalent, they say.
Nearly $39 billion of private equity funds were raised in 2015, and on top of that there was a “substantial” amount of dry powder remaining from funds raised in 2014, Doug Reynolds, managing director and head of US business for Scotiabank, said at the Hart Energy Capital Conference last week.
“The majority of US production is owned by companies that are financially strong and there is new equity [raised] that will make them more so,” Reynolds said.
US E&P companies have recapitalized to the tune of nearly $11 billion in equity so far this year, compared to $8.6 billion in Q1 2015, he and others noted.
While many oil companies will likely disappear, victims of liquidations and takeovers, “we think for the guys that make it through, it will be somewhat of a golden era for them,” Reynolds said.
But they will have to be fiscally lean and efficient. For one thing, lenders may be skeptical of companies whose acreage is not top-tier or industry-proven as they have seen many bankruptcies in the current downturn
A recent count by law firm Haynes and Boone put oil industry bankruptcies north of 50.
Focus to stay onshore for faster returns
During the downturn, oil companies produced from their best, highest-return wells. They have also concentrated on land plays since the returns are quicker, unlike offshore projects, which can take as long as 10 years to come onstream.
The shift to onshore production is expected to continue due to the lower costs and speedier returns available.
And while well costs have come down both onshore and offshore due to concessions from oilfield service companies, offshore wells have not experienced the astounding efficiency leaps that have been such a large part of the shale revolution onshore and allowed those operators to survive sub-$50/b oil.
Costly or lengthy projects in the US will be “challenged” going forward, Wil VanLoh, CEO of private equity firm Quantum Energy Partners, said at the Hart gathering.
The downturn will refocus public oil companies on making money more quickly rather than growing production and reserves. This will “materially” alter or even eliminate certain business models, such as long-cycle projects in deepwater and international arenas, or high-cost projects in the Gulf of Mexico, oil sands, upstream master limited partnerships and the bottom 50% of resource plays, VanLoh said.
Only the exceptional of these projects will be moved forward.
In addition, the private equity model of funding may be changed post-recovery, VanLoh said.
“The model where you lease land, drill a few wells and flip [the developed assets] to a public company is likely a thing of the past,” he said.
“Public companies have much less money to buy this stuff now, and they have a lot of acreage of their own,” he added. “PE-backed companies will have to more fully develop their assets, requiring more money and more time, so quick flips won’t be as prevalent.”
Going forward, debt capital will be harder to get and cost more, while acquisitions will require more equity and that should drive down the prices of assets.
“Expect more erratic prices, capital markets, and [mergers, acquisitions and divestiture] activity,” VanLoh added.
Also, hedging production to protect revenues will likely figure more into the equation. “Public and private companies will have to hedge more for a period of time to get deals done,” he said.
Lenders may also be under more stringent requirements to determine what a given company’s borrowing base should be with everything from interest coverage to debt asset ratios getting a fresh look, analysts said.
Borrowers will also have more responsibility. They will need to prove their price forecasts, and the viability of their budgets, and how they will achieve positive cash flow, Deborah Byers, US oil and gas leader for EY, formerly known as Ernst & Young, said.
“There will be a lot more rigor around forecasts that are presented to support borrowing bases,” Byers said.
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It was shaping up to yet another dull OPEC+ meeting. Cut and dry. Copy and paste. Rubber-stamping yet another monthly increase in production quotas by 432,000 b/d. Month after month of resisting pressure from the largest economies in the world to accelerate supply easing had inured markets to expectations of swift action by OPEC and its wider brethren in OPEC+.
And then, just two days before the meeting, chatter began that suggested something big was brewing. Whispers that Russia could be suspended made the rounds, an about-face for a group that has steadfastly avoided reference to the war in Ukraine, calling it a matter of politics not markets. If Russia was indeed removed from the production quotas, that would allow other OPEC+ producers to fill in the gap in volumes constrained internationally due to sanctions.
That didn’t happen. In fact, OPEC+ Joint Technical Committee commented that suspension of Russia’s quota was not discussed at all and not on the table. Instead, the JTC reduced its global oil demand forecast for 2022 by 200,000 b/d, expecting global oil demand to grow by 3.4 mmb/d this year instead with the downside being volatility linked to ‘geopolitical situations and Covid developments.’ Ordinarily, that would be a sign for OPEC+ to hold to its usual supply easing schedule. After all, the group has been claiming that oil markets have ‘been in balance’ for much of the first five months of 2022. Instead, the group surprised traders by announcing an increase in its monthly oil supply hike for July and August, adding 648,000 b/d each month for a 50% rise from the previous baseline.
The increase will be divided proportionally across OPEC+, as has been since the landmark supply deal in spring 2020. Crucially this includes Russia, where the new quota will be a paper one, since Western sanctions means that any additional Russian crude is unlikely to make it to the market. And that too goes for other members that haven’t even met their previous lower quotas, including Iraq, Angola and Nigeria. The oil ministers know this and the market knows this. Which is why the surprise announcement didn’t budge crude prices by very much at all.
In fact, there are only two countries within OPEC+ that have enough spare capacity to be ramped up quickly. The United Arab Emirates, which was responsible for recent turmoil within the group by arguing for higher quotas should be happy. But it will be a measure of backtracking for the only other country in that position, Saudi Arabia. After publicly stating that it had ‘done all it can for the oil market’ and blaming a lack of refining capacity for high fuel prices, the Kingdom’s change of heart seems to be linked to some external pressure. But it could seemingly resist no more. But that spotlight on the UAE and Saudi Arabia will allow both to wrench some market share, as both countries have been long preparing to increase their production. Abu Dhabi recently made three sizable onshore oil discoveries at Bu Hasa, Onshore Block 3 and the Al Dhafra Petroleum Concession, that adds some 650 million barrels to its reserves, which would help lift the ceiling for oil production from 4 to 5 mmb/d by 2030. Meanwhile, Saudi Aramco is expected to contract over 30 offshore rigs in 2022 alone, targeting the Marjan and Zuluf fields to increase production from 12 to 13 mmb/d by 2027.
The UAE wants to ramp up, certainly. But does Saudi Arabia too? As the dominant power of OPEC, what Saudi Arabia wants it usually gets. The signals all along were that the Kingdom wanted to remain prudent. It is not that it cannot, there is about a million barrels per day of extra production capacity that Saudi Arabia can open up immediately but that it does not want to. Bringing those extra volume on means that spare capacity drops down to critical levels, eliminating options if extra crises emerge. One is already starting up again in Libya, where internal political discord for years has led to an on-off, stop-start rhythm in Libyan crude. If Saudi Arabia uses up all its spare capacity, oil prices could jump even higher if new emergencies emerge with no avenue to tackle them. That the Saudis have given in (slightly) must mean that political pressure is heating up. That the announcement was made at the OPEC+ meeting and not a summit between US and Saudi leaders must mean that a façade of independence must be maintained around the crucial decisions to raise supply quotas.
But that increase is not going to be enough, especially with Russia’s absence. Markets largely shrugged off the announcement, keeping Brent crude at US$120/b levels. Consumption is booming, as the world rushes to enjoy its first summer with a high degree of freedom since Covid-19 hit. Which is why global leaders are looking at other ways to tackle high energy prices and mitigate soaring inflation. In Germany, low-priced monthly public transport are intended to wean drivers off cars. In the UK, a windfall tax on energy companies should yield US$6 billion to be used for insulating consumers. And in the US, Joe Biden has been busy.
With the Permian Basin focusing on fiscal prudence instead of wanton drilling, US shale output has not responded to lucrative oil prices that way it used to. American rig counts are only inching up, with some shale basins even losing rigs. So the White House is trying more creative ways. Though the suggestion of an ‘oil consumer cartel’ as an analogue to OPEC by Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is likely dead on arrival, the US is looking to unlock supply and tame fuel prices through other ways. Regular releases from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve has so far done little to bring prices down, but easing sanctions on Venezuelan crude that could be exported to the US and Europe, as well as working with the refining industry to restart recently idled refineries could. Inflation levels above 8% and gasoline prices at all-time highs could lead to a bloody outcome in this year’s midterm elections, and Joe Biden knows that.
But oil (and natural gas) supply/demand dynamics cannot truly start returning to normal as long as the war in Ukraine rages on. And the far-ranging sanctions impacting Russian energy exports will take even longer to be lifted depending on how the war goes. Yes, some Russian crude is making it to the market. China, for example, has been quietly refilling its petroleum reserves with Russian crude (at a discount, of course). India continues to buy from Moscow, as are smaller nations like Sri Lanka where an economic crisis limits options. Selling the crude is one thing, transporting it is another. With most international insurers blacklisting Russian shippers, Russian oil producers can still turn to local insurance and tankers from the once-derided state tanker firm Sovcomflot PJSC to deliver crude to the few customers they still have.
A 50% hike in OPEC’s monthly supply easing targets might seem like a lot. But it isn’t enough. Especially since actual production will fall short of that quota. The entire OPEC system, and the illusion of control it provides has broken down. Russian oil is still trickling out to global buyers but even if it returned in full, there is still not enough refining capacity to absorb those volumes. Doctors speak of long Covid symptoms in patients, and the world energy complex is experiencing long Covid, now with a touch with geopolitical germs as well. It’ll take a long time to recover, so brace yourselves.
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