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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.

"SWEET SPOTS"

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.   

"ADDITIONAL VALUE"

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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Your Weekly Update: 7 - 11 January 2019

Market Watch

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 7 January 2019 – Brent: US$57/b; WTI: US$49/b

  • Crude oil looks set to climb back to previous support levels as OPEC’s new supply deal kicks in and the US Federal Reserve sought to soothe investor confidence after initiating a surprise hike in interest rates that caused widespread global financial panic in December
  • Even as OPEC+ moves forwards with a planned 1.2 mmb/d cut in collective output, production across OPEC had already fallen over November and December as Saudi Arabia throttled production to support falling prices
  • Together with dwindling production in Venezuela, disruptions in Libya and losses in Iran, oil output from OPEC countries has already fallen by 530,000 b/d in December to 32.6 mmb/d, the sharpest pullback since January 2017
  • This has managed to re-assure the market that the global supply/demand balance is on firmer footing, even as Russian oil output reached a post-Soviet high of 11.16 mmb/d, just slightly off the all-time record of 11.42 mmb/d in 1987
  • With the recovery in prices, planned upstream projects will be back on firmer footing, with Rystad Energy expecting some US$123 billion of offshore projects to be sanctioned over 2019 if Brent crude averages US$60/b
  • Also supporting the upward momentum is the removal of 8 oil rigs from the active US rig count, as American drillers weighed up the risks of the fragile trajectory in WTI prices
  • Crude price outlook: Momentum is with crude oil prices this week, and we expect that to continue as OPEC+ implements its production plan, with Brent recovering to US$60-62/b and WTI to US$51-53/b


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Eni has acquired the remaining 70% of the Oooguruk field in Alaska from Caelus Natural Resources, bringing its stake to 100% to synergise with the nearby Nikaitchuq field, where Eni also owns a 100% interest interest
  • The deepwater Egina field in Nigeria, operated by Total through an FPSO, has started up production, with peak output expected at 200,000 b/d
  • Commercial production of crude at PAO Novatek/Gazprom’s Yaro-Yakhinskoye field has commenced, with output expected at 24,000 b/d
  • Total has sold a 2% interest in Oman’s Block 53 to Sweden’s Tethys Oil, bringing it into Occidental Petroleum’s 100,000 b/d Mukhaizna field
  • Brazil is preparing for its sixth round of upstream auctions, offering up pre-salt acreage in five areas expected to raise more than US$2 billion in sales
  • After recently making its 10th discovery in Guyana, ExxonMobil has its sights set on more as it drills two more exploration wells – Haimara-1 and Tilapia-1 – in the prolific Stabroek block, both close to existing discoveries
  • Ecuador is initiating a probe into some US$4.9 billion worth of oil-related infrastructure projects initiated by the previous administration on charges of corruption and looting

Downstream

  • China appears to be tempering crude demand, with the first batch of crude oil import quotas issued to state and private refineries at 26% lower than 2018, with quotas for teapots at some 78% of the 89.84 million tons approved
  • Saudi Aramco has acquired complete ownership of German specialty chemicals producers Lanxess AG by acquisition Dutch firm Arlanxeo’s 50% stake at €1.5 billion, strengthening its foray into petrochemicals
  • Iran will be investing some US$212 million into Chennai Petroleum’s 180 kb/d expansion of the Nagapatinam refinery on India’s east coast, as Iran looks for ways to ensure captive demand for its crude in one of its largest markets
  • The Mariner East 2 NGLs pipeline – transporting ethane, propane and butane over 560km to the Marcus Hook processing plant in Pennsylvania – has been completed, with the Mariner East 2X pipeline schedules for late 2019

Natural Gas/LNG

  • Shell’s 3.6 mtpa Prelude FLNG has finally started up initial production, the last of Australia’s giant natural gas projects to be completed
  • Brunei Shell Petroleum (BSP) has completed the onshore Darat Gas Project in Lumut, expanding LNG capacity in Brunei by 5% at the Rasau station
  • ExxonMobil’s Rovuma LNG project in Mozambique will be aiming to sanction FID in 2019 for its first phase, involving two trains with a combined capacity of 7.6 million tpa from the offshore Area 4 block
  • As LNG developments in Papua New Guinea move quickly to commercialisation, the PNG government has passed new laws to impose a domestic gas requirement and other provisions for new gas projects, to ensure adequate supply of resources for growing local demand
January, 11 2019
The Prospects of Venezuelan Oil

At some point in 2019, crude production in Venezuela will dip below the 1 mmb/d level. It might already have occurred; estimated output was 1.15 mmb/d in November and the country’s downward trajectory for 2018 would put December numbers at about 1.06 mmb/d. Financial sanctions imposed on the country by the US, coupled with years of fiscal mismanagement have triggered an economic and humanitarian meltdown, where inflation has at times hit 1,400,000% and forced an abandonment of the ‘old’ bolivar for a ‘new bolivar’. PDVSA – once an oil industry crown jewel – has been hammered, from its cargoes being seized by ConocoPhillips for debts owed to the loss of the Curacao refinery and its prized Citgo refineries in the US.

The year 2019 will not see a repair of this chronic issue. Crude production in Venezuela will continue to slide. Once Latin America’s largest oil exporter – with peak production of 3.3 mmb/d and exports of 2.3 mmb/d in 1999 – it has now been eclipsed by Brazil and eventually tiny Guyana, where ExxonMobil has made massive discoveries. Even more pain is on the way, as the Trump administration prepares new sanctions as Nicolas Maduro begins his second term after a widely-derided election. But what is pain for Venezuela is gain for OPEC; the slack that its declining volumes provides makes it easier to maintain aggregate supply levels aimed at shoring up global oil prices.

It isn’t that Venezuela doesn’t want to increase – or at least maintain its production levels. It is that PDVSA isn’t capable of doing so alone, and has lost many deep-pocketed international ‘friends’ that were once instrumental to its success. The nationalisation of the oil industry in 2007 alienated supermajors like Chevron, Total and BP, and led to ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil suing the Venezuelan government. Arbitration in 2014 saw that amount reduced, but even that has not been paid; ConocoPhillips took the extraordinary step of seizing PDVSA cargoes at sea and its Caribbean assets in lieu of the US$2 billion arbitration award. Burnt by the legacies of Hugo Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro, these majors won’t be coming back – forcing Venezuela to turn to second-tier companies and foreign aid to extract more volumes. Last week, Venezuela signed an agreement with the newly-formed US-based Erepla Services to boost production at the Tia Juana, Rosa Mediano and Ayacucho 5 fields. In return, Erepla will receive half the oil produced – generous terms that still weren’t enough to entice service giants like Schlumberger and Halliburton.

Venezuela is also tapping into Russian, Chinese and Indian aid to boost output, essentially selling off key assets for necessary cash and expertise. This could be a temporary band-aid, but nothing more. Most of Venezuela’s oil reserves come from the extra-heavy reserves in the Orinoco Belt, where an estimated 1.2 trillion barrels lies. Extracting this will be extremely expensive and possibly commercially uneconomical  – given the refining industry’s move away from heavy grades to middle distillates. There are also very few refineries in the world that can process such heavy crude, and Venezuela is in no position to make additional demands from them. In a world where PDVSA has fewer and fewer friends, recovery will be extremely tough and extremely far-off.  

Infographic: Venezuelan crude production:

  • 2015: 2.7 mmb/d (output), 1.9 mmb/d (exports)
  • 2016: 2.6 mmb/d (output), 1.8 mmb/d (exports)
  • 2017: 2.1 mmb/d (output), 1.5 mmb/d (exports)
  • 2018: 1.3 mmb/d (output), 1.2 mmb/d (exports)
  • November 2018: 1.15 mmb/d (output), 1.05 mmb/d (exports)
January, 10 2019
Your Weekly Update: 31 December 2018 - 4 January 2019

Market Watch

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 31 December 2018 – Brent: US$54/b; WTI: US$46/b

  • Crude oil will start 2019 on a stronger note after being routed last month over concerns that surging American production will swamp OPEC’s supply efforts and a global financial panic triggered by US trade policies and tighter monetary policy by the Federal Reserve
  • OPEC is continuing to re-iterate that it will play a strong role in managing global oil supply and demand, but there are worries that it may have to switch tactics to deal with the non-stop rise in US shale volumes
  • Concerns over the health of the global economy are also on the minds of traders, with signs that the Chinese economy is slowing down as the country’s manufacturing index has begun to contract
  • Suppression of demand growth could cap the ability for crude oil to rise up to the predicted average of US$70/b for the year, making supply management all the more important with Saudi Arabia pledging ‘deeper cuts’
  • American drillers added 3 new rigs in total heading into the new year, underscoring the continuous upward trajectory for US oil production – with signs pointing to the 12 mmb/d mark likely to be hit by mid-2019
  • Crude price outlook: The market should stabilise itself at US$54-55/b for Brent and US$46-47/b for WTI, with traders watching for signs over the implementation of OPEC+’s new supply deal

 

Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • BP is aiming to sanction development of the Platina field in Angola’s deepwater Block 18 in 1H2019, which would be the supermajor’s first new development in the country since 2013, following an extension of Greater Plutonio to 2032
  • Shell has completed the sale of its New Zealand upstream assets – including the Māui, Pohokura and Tank Farm entities – to Austria’s OMV for US$578 million
  • Eni UK has begun drilling in Rowallan well in the Central North Sea with Serica Energy, targeting condensate-rich volumes in well 22/19c-G
  • In South Africa, Total has begun drilling the Brulpadda-1AX well in offshore Block 11B/12B, with prospective resources of 500 million barrels of crude
  • Equinor has completed the sale of two assets on the Norwegian Continental Shelf, selling a 77.8% stake in King Lear to Aker BP for US$250 million as well as a 42.38% stake in Tommeliten Unit and 30% in PL044 to Poland’s PGNiG for US$220 million
  • Commercial crude production at the SARB and Umm Lulu fields in Abu Dhabi has begun, with Cepsa offering first crude from the sites last month

Downstream

  • Saudi Aramco has established the Saudi Aramco Retail Company (RetailCo), a new subsidiary focus on fuel retailing in the Kingdom as part of its plan to expand its business further downstream
  • After starting up official commercial production last month, Vietnam’s Nghi Son refinery has offered up its first cargo of jet fuel, joining the site’s existing slate of gasoline and gasoil volumes
  • BP and SOCAR have signed an agreement for a new petrochemicals joint venture in Turkey, with the proposed site in Aliaga aiming to have a capacity of 1.25 mtpa of PTA, 840,000 tpa of paraxylene and 340,000 tpa of benzene
  • Total and Angola’s Sonangol are extending their partnership downstream, forming a joint venture to focus on fuel and lubricants distribution and sales in Angola, as well as developing a new fuel retail network

Natural Gas/LNG

  • Australia’s Woodside Petroleum has inked a new mid-term deal with German utility RWE supplying LNG from the Corpus Christi LNG project in Texas from 4Q2020 to 4Q2022 – an extension of the 12 cargo, 2-year contract signed between both parties last year
  • Gazprom and Itochu have signed an MoU to cooperate on the proposed Baltic LNG export project, a 10 mtpa liquefaction plant planned in Leningrad
  • Eni has received permission from the Indonesian government to fast-track the Merakes Development Project in Kalimantan’s Kutei Basin, aimed at delivering additional volumes to the Bontang LNG plant
  • Indonesia is reviewing Inpex’s revised development plan for the Abadi LNG project as the Japanese firm has reportedly identified a small island in South Tanimbar as the location for the plant
January, 03 2019