T. Boone Pickens, the wildcatter “Oracle of Oil,” hedge fund founder and philanthropist who rewrote the playbook for corporate raiders, has died. He was 91.
He died Wednesday of natural causes.
Pickens had been in declining health, suffering from a series of strokes and a serious fall in 2017. In late 2017, he put his sprawling 100-square-mile Mesa Vista Ranch in the Texas Panhandle on the market for $250 million, and a few months later, he closed his energy hedge fund, BP Capital, to outside investors.
“I will sorely miss his friendship and his great wit. He was a stand-up guy from the old school. I wish there were more like him today,” said billionaire investor Carl Icahn. “He and I agreed on corporate governance … we shared the same values on shareholders’ rights.”
Pickens was known as a corporate raider in the 1980s, targeting Gulf Oil, Unocal and Phillips Petroleum, a company later targeted by Icahn. Icahn described Pickens’ Texas charm and wit. He recounted how Pickens told a major oil company CEO that his earnings were down for 10 years. Revenues were also down for 10 years, as was cash flow. Icahn remembers laughing, when Pickens said “Don’t you think that’s a trend?”
In a career that started with Phillips Petroleum, Pickens later pursued clean energy projects in wind power and natural gas.
He also was a big Republican political donor, backing George W. Bush in the Texas gubernatorial and presidential races. Guests at his ranch included Dick Cheney and Nancy Reagan.
Boone Pickens quail hunting on Mesa Vista Ranch. | Handout: Mesa Vista Ranch
He also donated more than $1 billion over the years, including hundreds of millions to his alma mater, Oklahoma State University, which named its renovated football stadium after him.
Thomas Boone Pickens Jr. was born May 22, 1928, in Holdenville, Oklahoma. His father was a “landman,” who sold oil and mineral rights. During World War II, his mother was in charge of rationing in her region as head of the local Office of Price Administration.
As a 12-year-old paperboy, Pickens started out with 28 customers, but by acquiring adjacent routes one at a time he quadrupled his business.
“That was my first introduction to expanding quickly by acquisition — a talent I would perfect in my later years,” he recalled on his website.
His family moved to Amarillo, Texas, where he attended high school. After graduating in 1951 from Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) with a degree in geology, Pickens started working at Phillips Petroleum.
He left three years later to drill wildcat wells, first founding Petroleum Exploration with $2,500 in cash and $100,000 in borrowed money for projects in the Texas Panhandle, and later establishing Altair Oil & Gas for exploration in western Canada. The companies became Mesa Petroleum, which Pickens took public in 1964 and became one of the largest independent oil and gas companies in the United States.
Boone Pickens, Chairman, BP Capital Management | Adam Jeffery | CNBC
“Pickens was one of thousands driving around the oil states, using public phone booths as their offices, hustling, looking at deals. Selling them, getting a crew together and a well drilled and, if lucky, hitting oil or gas, dreaming all the while of making it big, really big,” Daniel Yergin wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power.”
“Pickens got farther than most. He was smart and shrewd, with an ability to analyze and think through a problem, step by step.”Corporate raider: ‘Big Oil was never the same’
Five years after creating Mesa, Pickens targeted Hugoton Production for a hostile takeover, seeing that the value of Hugoton’s extensive gas reserves in Kansas dwarfed its low stock price. Although Mesa was substantially smaller than Hugoton, Pickens gathered the support of its shareholders by promising greater returns and better management.
During the early 1980s, Pickens took his corporate raider talents to new levels, investing in chunks of undervalued oil companies, trying to take them over and making big profits even if the buyout failed. As described on his website:
“Pickens and his young band of hungry Mesa Petroleum managers grabbed hold of a monster and shook it like it’d never been jostled before. They rode that monster, and got thrown some, but Big Oil was never the same again.”
After accumulating more than 5% of Cities Service stock over the years, Pickens led Mesa’s attempt in 1982 to acquire the much larger oil company. Cities Service counterattacked by trying to acquire Mesa. A wild bidding war ensued, with Occidental Petroleum eventually winning Cities Service for $4 billion. Pickens still reaped $30 million in profit on his shares.
Later, Pickens made similar, but failed, attempts with Phillips Petroleum, Unocal and Gulf Oil. Gulf, one of the “Seven Sister” oil giants, defended itself by turning to Chevron as its “white knight.” Chevron wound up swallowing Gulf for $13.2 billion, but Pickens netted $404 million for Mesa shareholders for their Gulf stake.
Some accused Pickens of being a “greenmailer,” in which an investor purchased large amounts of a company, then launched a takeover to run up the price before bailing out. But Pickens rejected that label. “I never greenmailed anybody,” he said in an interview on his website.
But there was no arguing that Pickens’ takeover tactics made him a bundle. They also landed him on the cover of Time magazine. There he was in 1985, sitting behind a pile of poker chips — blue chips — and holding a hand of cards decorated by oil derricks.
Source: Birney Lettick
“He was Gordon Gekko before ‘Wall Street,’ and his influence was profound,” The New York Times’ David Gelles wrote in a January 2018 profile, referring to the villain in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie.
As a corporate raider, Pickens was a leader of the budding “shareholders rights” movement. He founded the United Shareholders Association in 1986 to pressure corporate leaders “to give the companies back to the owners, which are the shareholders.”
“I have always believed that maintaining the status quo inevitably leads to failure,” Pickens wrote in a September 2017 column for Forbes. “Back then, the notion that shareholders own the companies and managements were employees was foreign to big oil companies that would rather operate like empires. I was hell-bent on shaking things up. I was a disrupter before disrupters were cool.”‘Halftime’ at age 68
In 1996, at age 68, Pickens sold Mesa, but rather than retire, he started a new business, BP Capital Management, a hedge fund focusing on the energy industry. (BP stands for his name, not British Petroleum.)
T. Boone Pickens, founder and chief executive officer of BP Capital LLC. | Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
“For most people, that would have been the end. For me, it was halftime,” he wrote in the Forbes column.
The hedge fund managed billions of dollars for investors until Pickens closed it in January 2018 because of his declining health.
A year after starting the hedge fund, he formed Pickens Fuel Corp. in 1997, promoting natural gas as an alternative to gasoline. In 2007, he spent $100 million of his own money to launch the Pickens Plan, a campaign with the goal of declaring U.S. energy independence.
The same year, the oilman announced plans to build the world’s largest wind farm — 4,000 megawatts — in the Texas Panhandle, but subsequent low natural gas prices helped to derail the plans. He turned his focus to getting Congress to offer incentives for conversion of trucks from diesel to compressed natural gas.
“I’m all American,” Pickens said. “Any energy in America beats importing.”‘Yes, I’m for Donald Trump’
During Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, Pickens helped finance the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” campaign that questioned John Kerry’s Vietnam War record and helped undermine the Democrat’s presidential bid.
He backed Republican Rudy Giuliani in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016.
“Yes, I’m for Donald Trump,” Pickens declared in May 2016. “I’m tired of having politicians as president of the U.S. Let’s try something different.”
He supported Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and his attempts to restrict visitors from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.
“I’d cut off the Muslims from coming into the United States until we can vet these people,” he said. “Cut them off until we can figure out who they are.”
Aside from Republican politics, Pickens was a benefactor of numerous organizations, including the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston ($50 million each in 2007). His $165 million donation to his OSU’s athletic department helped fund the stadium renovation. The school named the complex Boone Pickens Stadium to thank him for what it said was the largest single donation ever to any university athletic department.
On Valentine’s Day 2014, the 85-year-old Pickens married Toni Brinker, widow of Dallas restaurateur Norman Brinker, in a small ceremony in the Mesa Vista family chapel. His four previous marriages ended in divorce. She survives him, as do three daughters and two sons from previous marriages.
Days after Pickens suffered “a Texas-sized fall” in July 2017, he wrote a LinkedIn post titled “Accepting (or Embracing) Mortality.”
“Now, don’t for a minute think I’m being morbid,” he wrote. “Truth is, when you’re in the oil business like I’ve been all my life, you drill your fair share of dry holes, but you never lose your optimism. There’s a story I tell about the geologist who fell off a 10-story building. When he blew past the fifth floor he thought to himself, ‘So far so good.’ That’s the way to approach life. Be the eternal optimist who is excited to see what the next decade will bring.”
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Throughout much of its history, the United States has imported more petroleum (which includes crude oil, refined petroleum products, and other liquids) than it has exported. That status changed in 2020. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) February 2021 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO) estimates that 2020 marked the first year that the United States exported more petroleum than it imported on an annual basis. However, largely because of declines in domestic crude oil production and corresponding increases in crude oil imports, EIA expects the United States to return to being a net petroleum importer on an annual basis in both 2021 and 2022.
EIA expects that increasing crude oil imports will drive the growth in net petroleum imports in 2021 and 2022 and more than offset changes in refined product net trade. EIA forecasts that net imports of crude oil will increase from its 2020 average of 2.7 million barrels per day (b/d) to 3.7 million b/d in 2021 and 4.4 million b/d in 2022.
Compared with crude oil trade, net exports of refined petroleum products did not change as much during 2020. On an annual average basis, U.S. net petroleum product exports—distillate fuel oil, hydrocarbon gas liquids, and motor gasoline, among others—averaged 3.2 million b/d in 2019 and 3.4 million b/d in 2020. EIA forecasts that net petroleum product exports will average 3.5 million b/d in 2021 and 3.9 million b/d in 2022 as global demand for petroleum products continues to increase from its recent low point in the first half of 2020.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), February 2021
EIA expects that the United States will import more crude oil to fill the widening gap between refinery inputs of crude oil and domestic crude oil production in 2021 and 2022. U.S. crude oil production declined by an estimated 0.9 million b/d (8%) to 11.3 million b/d in 2020 because of well curtailment and a drop in drilling activity related to low crude oil prices.
EIA expects the rising price of crude oil, which started in the fourth quarter of 2020, will contribute to more U.S. crude oil production later this year. EIA forecasts monthly domestic crude oil production will reach 11.3 million b/d by the end of 2021 and 11.9 million b/d by the end of 2022. These values are increases from the most recent monthly average of 11.1 million b/d in November 2020 (based on data in EIA’s Petroleum Supply Monthly) but still lower than the previous peak of 12.9 million b/d in November 2019.
In the past week, crude oil prices have surged to levels last seen over a year ago. The global Brent benchmark hit US$63/b, while its American counterpart WTI crested over the US$60/b mark. The more optimistic in the market see these gains as a start of a commodity supercycle stemming from market forces pent-up over the long Covid-19 pandemic. The more cynical see it as a short-term spike from a perfect winter storm and constrained supply. So, which is it?
To get to that point, let’s examine how crude oil prices have evolved since the start of the year. On the consumption side, the market is vacillating between hopeful recovery and jittery reactions as Covid-19 outbreaks and vaccinations lent a start-stop rhythm to consumption trends. Yes, vaccination programmes were developed at lightning speed; and even plenty of bureaucratic hiccoughs have not hampered a steady rollout across the globe. In the UK, more than 20% of adults have received at least one dose of the vaccines, with the USA not too far behind. Israel has vaccinated more than 75% of its population, and most countries should be well into their own programmes by the end of March. That acceleration of vaccinations has underpinned expectations of higher oil demand, with hopes that people will begin to drive again, fly again and buy again. But those hopes have been occasionally interrupted by new Covid-19 clusters detected and, more worryingly, new mutations of the virus.
Against this hopeful demand picture, supply has been managed. Squabbling among the OPEC+ club has prevented a more aggressive approach to managing supply than kingpin Saudi Arabia would like, but OPEC+ has still managed to hold itself together to placate the market that crude spigots will remain restrained. And while the UAE has successfully shifted OPEC+ quota plan for 2021 from quarterly adjustments to monthly, Saudi Arabia stepped into the vacuum to stamp its authority with a voluntary 1 million barrels per day cut. The market was impressed.
That combination of events over January was enough to move Brent prices from the low US$50/b level to the upper US$50/b range. However, US$60/b remained seemingly out of reach. It took a heavy dusting of snow across Texas to achieve that.
Winter weather across the northern hemisphere seemed harsher than usual this year. Europe was hit by two large continent-wide storms, while the American Northeast and Pacific Northwest were buffeted with quite a few snowstorms. Temperatures in East Asia were fairly cold too, which led to strong prices for natural gas and LNG to keep the population warm. But it was a major snowstorm that swept through the southern United States – including Texas – that had the largest effect on prices. Some areas of Texas saw temperatures as low as -18 degrees Celsius, while electricity demand surged to the point where grids failed, leaving 4.3 million people without power. A national emergency was declared, with over 150 million Americans under winter storm warning conditions.
For the global oil complex, the effects of the storm were also direct. Some of the largest oil refineries in the world were forced to shut down due to the Arctic conditions, further disrupting power and fuel supplies. All in all, over 3 mmb/d of oil processing capacity had to be idled in the wake of the storm, including Motiva’s Port Arthur, ExxonMobil’s Baytown and Marathon’s Galveston Bay refineries. And even if the sites were still running, they would have to contend to upstream disruptions: estimates suggest that crude oil production in the prolific Permian Basin dropped by over a million barrels per day due to power outages, while several key pipelines connecting Cushing, Oklahoma to the Texas Gulf Coast were also forced to shutter.
That perfect storm was enough to send crude prices above the US$60/b level. But will it last? The damage from the Texan snowstorm has already begun to abate, and even then crude prices did not seem to have the appetite to push higher than US$63/b for Brent and US$60/b for WTI.
Instead, the key development that should determine the future range for crude prices going into the second quarter of 2021 will be in early March, when the OPEC+ club meets once again to decide the level of its supply quotas for April and perhaps beyond. The conundrum facing the various factions within the club is this: at US$60/b, crude oil prices are not low enough to scare all members in voting for unanimous stricter quotas and also not high enough to rescind controlled supply. Instead, prices are at a fragile level where arguments can be made both ways. Russia is already claiming that global oil markets are ‘balanced’, while Saudi Arabia is emphasising the need for caution in public messaging ahead of the meeting. Saudi Arabia’s voluntary supply cut will also expire in March, setting up the stage for yet another fractious meeting. If a snow overrun Texans was a perfect storm to push crude prices to a 13-month high, then the upcoming OPEC+ meeting faces another perfect storm that could negate confidence. Which will it be? The answer lies on the other side of the storm.
Much like the year itself, the final quarter of 2020 proved to be full of shocks and surprises… at least in terms of financial results from oil and gas giants. With crude oil prices recovering on the back of a concerted effort by OPEC+ to keep a lid on supply, even at the detriment of their market share, the fourth quarter of 2020 was supposed to be smooth sailing. The tailwind of stronger crude and commodity prices, alongside gradual demand recovery, was expected to have smoothen out the revenue and profit curves for the supermajors.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, losses were declared where they were not expected. And where profits were to be had, they were meagre in volume. And crucially, a deeper dive into the financial results revealed worrying trends in the cash flow of several supermajors, calling into question the ability of these giants to continue on their capital expenditure and dividend plans, and the risks of resorting to debt financing in order to appease investors and yet also continue expanding.
Let’s start with the least surprising result of all. For months, ExxonMobil had been signalling that it would be taking a massive writedown on its upstream assets in Q4 2020, which could lead to a net loss for the quarter and the year. Unlike its peers, ExxonMobil had resisted making writedowns on the value of its crude-producing assets earlier in 2020. At the time, it stated that it had already built caution in the value assessments of those assets, reflecting ‘fair value’; not so long after that bold statement, ExxonMobil has been forced to backtrack and make a US$20.2 billion downward adjustment. Unusually, that meant that non-cash impairments aside, ExxonMobil actually eked out a tiny profit of US$110 million for the quarter on the strength of margins in the chemicals segment, but a full year loss of US$22.4 billion: the first ever annual loss since Exxon and Mobil merged in 1998. This was better than expected by Wall Street analysts, who would also be cheering the formation of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, in which the group would pump some US$3 billion through 2025 to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 2016 levels. That acknowledgement of a carbon neutral future is still far less ambitious than its European counterparts, but is a clear sign that ExxonMobil is starting to take the climate change element of its business more seriously.
If ExxonMobil managed to surprise in a good way, then its closest American rival did the opposite. Chevron had been outperforming ExxonMobil in quarterly results for a while now, but in Q4 2020 retreated with a net loss of US$665 million. That was narrower than the US$6.6 billion loss declared in Q4 2019, but still a shock since analysts were expecting a narrow profit. Calling 2020 ‘a year like no other’, the headwinds facing Chevron in Q4 2020 were the same facing all majors and supermajors, despite gains in crude prices, refining margins and fuel sales were still soft. Chevron’s cash flow was also a concern – as was ExxonMobil’s – which prompted chatter that the two direct descendants of JD Rockefeller’s Standard Oil were considering a merger. If so, then there is at least alignment on the climate topic: Chevron is also following the trail blazed by European supermajors in embracing a carbon neutral future, with CEO Michael Wirth conceding that Chevron may ‘not be an oil-first company in 2040’.
On the European side of the pond, that same theme of lowered downstream performance dragging down overall performance continued. But unlike the US supermajors, the likes of Shell, BP and Total were somewhat insulated from the Covid-19 blows at the peak of the pandemic as their opportunistic trading divisions capitalised on the wild swings in crude and fuel prices. That factor is now absent, with crude prices taking on a steady upward curve. That’s good for the rest of their businesses, but bad for trading, which thrives on uncertainty and volatility. And so BP reported a Q4 net profit of US$115 million, Shell followed with a Q4 net profit of US$393 million and Total closed out the earning season with industry-beating Q4 net profit of US$1.3 billion, above market expectations.
The softness of the financials hasn’t stopped dividend payouts, but has also been used by Europe’s Big Oil to set the tone for the next few decades of their existence. Total and BP paid a hefty premium to secure rights to build the next generation of UK wind farms; Total joined the Maersk-McKinney Moller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping to develop carbon neutral shipping solutions and splashed out on acquiring 2.2 GW of solar power projects in Texas; BP signed a strategic collaboration agreement with Russia’s Rosneft to develop new low carbon solutions; and aircraft carrier KLM took off with the first flight powered by synthetic kerosene that was developed by Shell through carbon dioxide, water and renewables. That’s a lot of a groundwork laid for the future where these giants can be carbon neutral by 2050.
The message from Q4 seems clear. Big Oil has barely begun its recovery from the Covid-19 maelstrom, and the road to a new normal remains long and painful. But this is also an opportunity to pivot; to set a new destination that is no longer business-as-usual, but embraces zero carbon ambitions. Even the American supermajors are slowly coming around, while the European continues to lead. Will majors in Asia, Latin America and Africa/Middle East follow? Let’s see what that attitude will bring over this new decade.
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