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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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 18 March 2019 – Brent: US$67/b; WTI: US$58/b
Headlines of the week
Midstream & Downstream
Risk and reward – improving recovery rates versus exploration
A giant oil supply gap looms. If, as we expect, oil demand peaks at 110 million b/d in 2036, the inexorable decline of fields in production or under development today creates a yawning gap of 50 million b/d by the end of that decade.
How to fill it? It’s the preoccupation of the E&P sector. Harry Paton, Senior Analyst, Global Oil Supply, identifies the contribution from each of the traditional four sources.
1. Reserve growth
An additional 12 million b/d, or 24%, will come from fields already in production or under development. These additional reserves are typically the lowest risk and among the lowest cost, readily tied-in to export infrastructure already in place. Around 90% of these future volumes break even below US$60 per barrel.
2. pre-drill tight oil inventory and conventional pre-FID projects
They will bring another 12 million b/d to the party. That’s up on last year by 1.5 million b/d, reflecting the industry’s success in beefing up the hopper. Nearly all the increase is from the Permian Basin. Tight oil plays in North America now account for over two-thirds of the pre-FID cost curve, though extraction costs increase over time. Conventional oil plays are a smaller part of the pre-FID wedge at 4 million b/d. Brazil deep water is amongst the lowest cost resource anywhere, with breakevens eclipsing the best tight oil plays. Certain mature areas like the North Sea have succeeded in getting lower down the cost curve although volumes are small. Guyana, an emerging low-cost producer, shows how new conventional basins can change the curve.
3. Contingent resource
These existing discoveries could deliver 11 million b/d, or 22%, of future supply. This cohort forms the next generation of pre-FID developments, but each must overcome challenges to achieve commerciality.
Last, but not least, yet-to-find. We calculate new discoveries bring in 16 million b/d, the biggest share and almost one-third of future supply. The number is based on empirical analysis of past discovery rates, future assumptions for exploration spend and prospectivity.
Can yet-to-find deliver this much oil at reasonable cost? It looks more realistic today than in the recent past. Liquids reserves discovered that are potentially commercial was around 5 billion barrels in 2017 and again in 2018, close to the late 2030s ‘ask’. Moreover, exploration is creating value again, and we have argued consistently that more companies should be doing it.
But at the same time, it’s the high-risk option, and usually last in the merit order – exploration is the final top-up to meet demand. There’s a danger that new discoveries – higher cost ones at least – are squeezed out if demand’s not there or new, lower-cost supplies emerge. Tight oil’s rapid growth has disrupted the commercialisation of conventional discoveries this decade and is re-shaping future resource capture strategies.
To sustain portfolios, many companies have shifted away from exclusively relying on exploration to emphasising lower risk opportunities. These mostly revolve around commercialising existing reserves on the books, whether improving recovery rates from fields currently in production (reserves growth) or undeveloped discoveries (contingent resource).
Emerging technology may pose a greater threat to exploration in the future. Evolving technology has always played a central role in boosting expected reserves from known fields. What’s different in 2019 is that the industry is on the cusp of what might be a technological revolution. Advanced seismic imaging, data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, the cloud and supercomputing will shine a light into sub-surface’s dark corners.
Combining these and other new applications to enhance recovery beyond tried-and-tested means could unlock more reserves from existing discoveries – and more quickly than we assume. Equinor is now aspiring to 60% from its operated fields in Norway. Volume-wise, most upside may be in the giant, older, onshore accumulations with low recovery factors (think ExxonMobil and Chevron’s latest Permian upgrades). In contrast, 21st century deepwater projects tend to start with high recovery factors.
If global recovery rates could be increased by a percentage or two from the average of around 30%, reserves growth might contribute another 5 to 6 million b/d in the 2030s. It’s just a scenario, and perhaps makes sweeping assumptions. But it’s one that should keep conventional explorers disciplined and focused only on the best new prospects.
Global oil supply through 2040
Things just keep getting more dire for Venezuela’s PDVSA – once a crown jewel among state energy firms, and now buried under debt and a government in crisis. With new American sanctions weighing down on its operations, PDVSA is buckling. For now, with the support of Russia, China and India, Venezuelan crude keeps flowing. But a ghost from the past has now come back to haunt it.
In 2007, Venezuela embarked on a resource nationalisation programme under then-President Hugo Chavez. It was the largest example of an oil nationalisation drive since Iraq in 1972 or when the government of Saudi Arabia bought out its American partners in ARAMCO back in 1980. The edict then was to have all foreign firms restructure their holdings in Venezuela to favour PDVSA with a majority. Total, Chevron, Statoil (now Equinor) and BP agreed; ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips refused. Compensation was paid to ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, which was considered paltry. So the two American firms took PDVSA to international arbitration, seeking what they considered ‘just value’ for their erstwhile assets. In 2012, ExxonMobil was awarded some US$260 million in two arbitration awards. The dispute with ConocoPhillips took far longer.
In April 2018, the International Chamber of Commerce ruled in favour of ConocoPhillips, granting US$2.1 billion in recovery payments. Hemming and hawing on PDVSA’s part forced ConocoPhillips’ hand, and it began to seize control of terminals and cargo ships in the Caribbean operated by PDVSA or its American subsidiary Citgo. A tense standoff – where PDVSA’s carriers were ordered to return to national waters immediately – was resolved when PDVSA reached a payment agreement in August. As part of the deal, ConocoPhillips agreed to suspend any future disputes over the matter with PDVSA.
The key word being ‘future’. ConocoPhillips has an existing contractual arbitration – also at the ICC – relating to the separate Corocoro project. That decision is also expected to go towards the American firm. But more troubling is that a third dispute has just been settled by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes tribunal in favour of ConocoPhillips. This action was brought against the government of Venezuela for initiating the nationalisation process, and the ‘unlawful expropriation’ would require a US$8.7 billion payment. Though the action was brought against the government, its coffers are almost entirely stocked by sales of PDVSA crude, essentially placing further burden on an already beleaguered company. A similar action brought about by ExxonMobil resulted in a US$1.4 billion payout; however, that was overturned at the World Bank in 2017.
But it might not end there. The danger (at least on PDVSA’s part) is that these decisions will open up floodgates for any creditors seeking damages against Venezuela. And there are quite a few, including several smaller oil firms and players such as gold miner Crystallex, who is owed US$1.2 billion after the gold industry was nationalised in 2011. If the situation snowballs, there is a very tempting target for creditors to seize – Citgo, PDVSA’s crown jewel that operates downstream in the USA, which remains profitable. And that would be an even bigger disaster for PDVSA, even by current standards.
Infographic: Venezuela oil nationalisation dispute timeline