LONDON (Reuters) - Having turned round its North American shale business, Royal Dutch Shell is putting so-called unconventional energy at the heart of its growth plans, and believes lessons from the revamp can be applied across the company.
Greg Guidry, head of the Anglo-Dutch group's unconventionals business, told Reuters a drive to slash costs and streamline decision-making had put his division largely on a par with leading rivals in terms of productivity and efficiency.
And now the rest of Shell could reap the benefits too.
"The executive committee charged us to be a catalyst for change within the broader Shell," Guidry said in an interview.
He also said Shell planned to make small acquisitions near its existing North American shale areas, notably from producers struggling in the current industry downturn, and hoped to launch an early production well this year in Argentina's Vaca Muerta, considered the world's No.2 shale resource after North America.
That's quite a change in fortunes.
As recently as late last year, Shell Chief Executive Ben van Beurden was considering jettisoning the unconventionals business over concerns it would drag down group profitability after the group's $54 billion acquisition of BG Group in February.
Shell and rivals including Chevron and Exxon Mobil were late to the shale revolution at the end of the last decade and struggled to match the success of smaller independent producers that increased U.S. output by around 4 million barrels per day between 2008 and 2015.
Oil majors' often cautious pace in complex, high-risk projects was ill-suited to the nimble needs of shale, which requires drilling hundreds of wells and injecting water at high pressure to break the rock that holds oil and gas.
So Shell moved to adapt.
In recent years, it has shed half of its North American unconventional assets for around $4 billion to focus on four areas in the United States and Canada.
It has cut its technical check-list for drilling shale wells from 20,000 requirements to less than 200 and given managers "end-to-end" control of the production process from well exploration through to well abandonment, Guidry said.
The division's efficiency has risen by 50 percent over the past three years, production has grown by 35 percent and capital spending is down by 60 percent to around $2.0-$2.5 billion.
Today, Shell makes a profit from shale oil production in "sweet spots" in the Permian or Duvernay in Canada with crude prices of $40 a barrel, Guidry said. After dipping below $30 in January, Brent crude is currently trading around $48.
"In terms of execution, we are completely competitive and have aspirations to be leading," Guidry said, adding the business could now compete with leading shale producers such as Pioneer Natural Resources and EOG Resources though costs still could be reduced.
Advances in technology meant there was scope to increase oil recovery from shale rock from today's 7-9 percent by another 1-3 percent over the coming years, Guidry added.
"That is billions of barrels. We absolutely can reach that," the 55-year-old American said.
And unlike multi-billion deepwater projects, shale can be turned on "with the drop of a hat," Guidry said.
At around 300,000 barrels per day, shale today represents around 8 percent of Shell's overall production. However, Shell holds shale reserves of around 12 billion barrels, roughly as much as its deepwater resources, Guidry said.
The shale business got its reward earlier this month when Van Beurden identified it as a key growth priority for Shell in the next decade along with renewable energy.
What's more, Shell engineers are now using the experience in the shale business to improve deepwater projects, which helped knock out $1.5 billion in costs for the development of the Stones field in the Gulf of Mexico.
As oil producers scrap costly and complex projects such as deepwater fields and sharply reduce budgets in the face of the oil price downturn, they are turning again to onshore shale which offers quicker returns and lower investments.
Some analysts, including at Bernstein, still argue Shell should divest the shale business to focus on core strengths such as deepwater and liquefied natural gas (LNG), which are generating larger profits.
"Surely private equity would have offered some healthy cash proceeds for this business today," said Bernstein analyst Oswald Clint, who rates Shell shares "outperform".
But analysts at U.S. investment bank Tudor Pickering, Halt and Co. see growing value in Shell's unconventional portfolio, particularly in the Permian basin, which they value at $13 billion if oil hits $75 a barrel.
"We believe Shell's North American unconventional portfolio is less core relative to global deepwater and LNG but we do see additional value that should command a premium multiple when compared to its European supermajor peers," they said.
By Ron Bousso
(Editing by Mark Potter)
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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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