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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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August, 21 2019
TODAY IN ENERGY: The U.S. leads global petroleum and natural gas production with record growth in 2018

U.S. petroleum and natural gas production increased by 16% and by 12%, respectively, in 2018, and these totals combined established a new production record. The United States surpassed Russia in 2011 to become the world's largest producer of natural gas and surpassed Saudi Arabia in 2018 to become the world's largest producer of petroleum. Last year’s increase in the United States was one of the largest absolute petroleum and natural gas production increases from a single country in history.

For the United States and Russia, petroleum and natural gas production is almost evenly split; Saudi Arabia's production heavily favors petroleum. Petroleum production is composed of several types of liquid fuels, including crude oil and lease condensate, natural gas plant liquids (NGPLs), and bitumen. The United States produced 28.7 quadrillion British thermal units (quads) of petroleum in 2018, which was composed of 80% crude oil and condensate and 20% NGPLs.

estimated petroleum and natural gas production in selected countries

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on International Energy Statistics
Note: Petroleum includes crude oil, condensate, and natural gas plant liquids.

U.S. crude oil production increased by 17% in 2018, setting a new record of nearly 11.0 million barrels per day (b/d), equivalent to 22.8 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in energy terms. Production in the Permian region of western Texas and eastern New Mexico contributed to most of the growth in U.S. crude oil production. The United States also produced 4.3 million b/d of NGPLs in 2018, equivalent to 5.8 quadrillion Btu. U.S. NGPL production has more than doubled since 2008, when the market for NGPLs began to expand.

U.S. dry natural gas production increased by 12% in 2018 to 28.5 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d), or 31.5 quadrillion Btu, reaching a new record high for the second year in a row. Ongoing growth in liquefied natural gas export capacity and the expanded ability to reach new markets have supported increases in U.S. natural gas production.

Russia’s crude oil and natural gas production also reached record levels in 2018, encouraged by increasing global demand. Russia exports most of the crude oil that it produces to European countries and to China. Since 2016, nearly 60% of Russia’s crude oil exports have gone to European member countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Russia’s crude oil is also an important source of supply to China and neighboring countries.

Russia’s natural gas production increased by 7% in 2018, which exceeded the growth in exports. The Yamal liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility, which loaded its first cargo in December 2017, can liquefy more than 16 million tons of natural gas annually and accounts for almost all of the recent growth in Russia’s LNG exports. Since 2000, more than 80% of Russia’s natural gas exports have been sent to Europe.

Saudi Arabia’s annual average crude oil production increased slightly in 2018, but it remained lower than in 2016, when Saudi Arabia’s crude oil output reached a record high. Saudi Arabia’s crude oil production reached an all-time monthly high in November 2018 before the December 2018 agreement by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to extend production cuts.

In addition to exporting and refining crude oil, Saudi Arabia consumes crude oil directly for electricity generation, which makes Saudi Arabian crude oil consumption highest in the summer when electricity demand for space cooling is relatively high. Since 2016, Saudi Arabia’s direct crude oil burn for electric power generation has decreased for a number of reasons, including demand reductions from a partial withdraw of power subsidies, greater use of residual fuel oil, and increased availability of domestic natural gas.

Crude oil exports account for about 60% of Saudi Arabia’s total economic output. China, along with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States remain critical markets for Saudi Arabia’s petroleum exports.

August, 21 2019
Your Weekly Update: 12 - 16 August 2019

Market Watch 

Headline crude prices for the week beginning 12 August 2019 – Brent: US$58/b; WTI: US$54/b

  • Saudi Arabia’s overtures to further stabilise prices was met with a largely positive response by the market, allowing crude prices to claw back some ground after being hammered by demand concerns
  • Saudi officials reportedly called other members in the OPEC and OPEC+ producer clubs to discuss options on how to stem the recent rout in prices, with an anonymous official quoted as saying that it ‘would not tolerate continued price weakness’
  • Reports suggest that Saudi Arabia plans to keep its oil exports at below 7 mmb/d in September according to sales allocations, which was seen as a stabilising factor in crude price trends
  • This came after crude prices fell as the US-China trade war entered a new front, causing weakness in the Chinese Yuan, although President Trump has floated the idea of delaying the new round of tariffs beyond the current implementation timeline of September 1
  • Crude had also fallen in response to a slide in American crude oil stockpiles and a receding level of tensions in the Persian Gulf
  • In a new report, the International Energy Agency said that the outlook for global oil demand is ‘fragile’ on signs of an economic slowdown; there is also concern that China will target US crude if the US moves ahead with its tariff plan
  • The US active rig count lost another 8 rigs – 6 oil and 2 gas – the sixth consecutive weekly loss that brought the total number of active rigs to 934
  • Demand fears will continue to haunt the market, which will not be offset so easily of Saudi-led efforts to limit production; as a result, crude prices will trade rangebound with a negative slant in the US$56-58/b range for Brent and US$52-54/b for WTI


Headlines of the week

Upstream

  • Nearly all Anadarko shareholders have approved the Occidental Petroleum deal, completing the controversial takeover bid despite investor Carl Icahn’s attempts to derail the purchase
  • Crude oil inventories in Western Canada have fallen by 2.75 million barrels m-o-m to its lowest level since November 2017, as the production limits in Alberta appear to be doing their job in limiting a supply glut while output curbs are slowly being loosened on the arrival of more rail and pipeline capacity
  • Mid-sized Colorado players PDC Energy and SRC Energy – both active in the Denver-Julesburg Basin – are reportedly in discussion to merge their operations
  • Pemex has been granted approval by the National Hydrocarbon Commission to invest US$10 billion over 25 years to develop onshore and offshore exploration opportunities in Mexico
  • Qatar Investment Authority has acquired a ‘significant stake’ in major Permian player Oryx Midstream Services from Stonepeak Infrastructure Partners for some US$550 million, as foreign investment in the basin increases
  • PDVSA and CNPC’s Venezuelan joint venture Sinovensa has announced plans to expand blending capacity – lightening up extra-heavy Orinoco crude to medium-grade Merey – from a current 110,000 b/d to 165,000 b/d
  • BHP has approved an additional US$283 million in funding for the Ruby oil and gas project in Trinidad and Tobago, with first production expected in 2021
  • CNPC, ONGC Videsh and Petronas have reportedly walked away from their onshore acreage in Sudan, blaming unpaid oil dues on production from onshore Blocks 2A and 4 that have already reached more than US$500 million

Midstream/Downstream

  • Expected completion of Nigeria’s huge planned 650 kb/d Dangote refinery has been delayed to the end of 2020, with issues importing steel and equipment cited
  • Saudi Aramco’s US refining arm Motiva announced plans to shut several key units at its 607 kb/d Port Arthur facility in Texas for a 2-month planned maintenance, affecting its 325 kb/d CDU and the naphtha processing plant
  • ADNOC has purchased a 10% stake in global terminal operator VTTI, expanding its terminalling capacity in Asia, Africa and Europe
  • A little-known Chinese contractor Wison Engineering Services has reportedly agreed to refurbish Venezuela’s main refineries in a barter deal for oil produced, in a bid for Venezuela to evade the current US sanctions on its crude exports
  • Swiss downstream player Varo Energy will increase its stake in the 229 kb/d Bayernoil complex in Germany to 55% after purchasing BP’s 10% stake
  • India has raised the projected cost estimate of its giant planned refinery in Maharashtra – a joint venture between Indian state oil firms with Saudi Aramco and ADNOC – to US$60 billion, after farmer protests forced a relocation

Natural Gas/LNG

  • The government of Australia’s New South Wales has given its backing to South Korea’s Epik and its plan to build a new LNG import terminal in Newcastle
  • Kosmos Energy is proposing to build two new LNG facilities to tap into deepwater gas resources offshore Mauritania and Senegal under development
  • In the middle of the Pacific, the French territory of New Caledonia has started work on its Centrale Pays Project, a floating LNG terminal with an accompanying 200-megawatt power plant, with Nouvelle-Caledonia Energie seeking a 15-year LNG sales contract for roughly 200,000 tons per year
August, 16 2019