Easwaran Kanason

Co - founder of NrgEdge
Last Updated: January 28, 2020
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Business Trends
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When asked in December about the projected slowdown in American shale output, the new US Energy Secretary shrugged off the notion, describing it as a mere ‘pause’. Blaming the expected slowdown to the ‘natural adjustments’ of oil and gas prices instead of a structural decline in production, Dan Brouilette is painting a rosy picture of US shale – where riches still lie underneath, waiting for the right price to be extracted. Of course he would paint such a picture. Brouilette is the new Energy Secretary, replacing Rick Perry. He couldn’t come in on a message of doom and gloom. But his pretty picture isn’t accurate either.

Schlumberger just posted a US$10 billion loss for the full year 2019, despite relatively flat y-o-y revenues. CEO Oliver Le Peuch called its international performance ‘positive’, but blamed ‘land market weakness’ causing a sharp decline in North American revenues and profits. Land market is code word for shale, and Schlumberger isn’t the only one facing problems. Halliburton announced a loss of US$1.1 billion in 2019, taking a US$2.2 billion charge on weakening US shale activity as North American revenue for Halliburton fell by 21% in 4Q19 and 18% for the whole year. While its results managed to beat analyst predictions – already stung by Schlumberger’s results – Halliburton doesn’t expect things to get rosier either, signalling that it expected ‘customer spending’ in North America to be down again in 2020.

And it isn’t just service companies suffering. US supermajor Chevron booked a US$11 billion write-down on a collection of assets in its latest set of financials, including on a major deepwater project in the Gulf of Mexico, the Kitimat LNG project in Canada and onshore Appalachian shale assets. Taken as a whole, the total impairment might coming from Chevron’s lowered forecast for oil and gas prices to the US$55-60/b range for 2020, but that shale was singled out is a major factor. And Chevron isn’t the only one. BP, Repsol and even ExxonMobil are expecting weakness. Only Shell and Total, who haven’t devoted as much attention to US shale, particularly the Permian, have been relatively insulated.  

Why is this happening? There are two different factors operating. From a producers’ standpoint, the rising tide of US shale output is contributing to weakening global prices  for oil – and that has a lot to do with the debt burden of existing US shale players, who have to keep drilling to pay off loans. Added conventional production coming online from Guyana, Brazil and Norway at the same time aren’t helping with prices either, despite OPEC+’s best intentions. From a service company’s perspective, firms like Schlumberger and Halliburton derive their revenue from drilling activity, not drilling output. And US drilling activity has dropped steeply over the past year, currently down by over 250 rigs according to the Baker Hughes weekly rig count. Much of this is onshore, principally in the Permian but also in other basins, as the once nimble and dynamic drillers are forced to stop activity either through bankruptcy or to shut shop temporarily as crude prices fall to uneconomical levels.

The US EIA has issued a new forecast, predicting that US shale output will slow down to a 1.1 mmb/d gain over 2020. That’s still optimistic, taking total US production to 13.3 mmb/d. In 2021, however, the EIA think output growth will fall even further, to an annual gain of just 400,000 b/d. Implicit to that forecast is that the EIA expects prices to remain subdued over the new two years, because shale drillers would respond to higher prices with increased drilling. There is also production structure to consider. Shale well produce immediate results, but show steep declines after. From 2012 to 2019, the amount of drilled but uncompleted (DUCs) wells – ie. wells that can be exploited within a short time frame – grew and grew; in the last 9 months, the glut of DUCs has shrunk – suggested that the industry is not drilling new wells as fast as they are completing already-drilled. Drilling activity has declined, and the chronic decline in the Baker Hughes active rig count – 18 of the last 21 weeks showed a net loss of rigs – is just proof of that.

It may not be the picture that Dan Brouilette wants to paint, but it is reality. The shale slowdown is real. It is also true that shale activity would increase if prices rose to more viable levels – say the US$65-70/b range – but let’s be honest, what are the odds of that happening when shale itself is the cause of weakening prices.

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The New Wave of Renewable Fuels

In 2021, the makeup of renewables has also changed drastically. Technologies such as solar and wind are no longer novel, as is the idea of blending vegetable oils into road fuels or switching to electric-based vehicles. Such ideas are now entrenched and are not considered enough to shift the world into a carbon neutral future. The new wave of renewables focus on converting by-products from other carbon-intensive industries into usable fuels. Research into such technologies has been pioneered in universities and start-ups over the past two decades, but the impetus of global climate goals is now seeing an incredible amount of money being poured into them as oil & gas giants seek to rebalance their portfolios away from pure hydrocarbons with a goal of balancing their total carbon emissions in aggregate to zero.

Traditionally, the European players have led this drive. Which is unsurprising, since the EU has been the most driven in this acceleration. But even the US giants are following suit. In the past year, Chevron has poured an incredible amount of cash and effort in pioneering renewables. Its motives might be less than altruistic, shareholders across America have been particularly vocal about driving this transformation but the net results will be positive for all.

Chevron’s recent efforts have focused on biomethane, through a partnership with global waste solutions company Brightmark. The joint venture Brightmark RNG Holdings operations focused on convert cow manure to renewable natural gas, which are then converted into fuel for long-haul trucks, the very kind that criss-cross the vast highways of the US delivering goods from coast to coast. Launched in October 2020, the joint venture was extended and expanded in August, now encompassing 38 biomethane plants in seven US states, with first production set to begin later in 2021. The targeting of livestock waste is particularly crucial: methane emissions from farms is the second-largest contributor to climate change emissions globally. The technology to capture methane from manure (as well as landfills and other waste sites) has existed for years, but has only recently been commercialised to convert methane emissions from decomposition to useful products.

This is an arena that another supermajor – BP – has also made a recent significant investment in. BP signed a 15-year agreement with CleanBay Renewables to purchase the latter’s renewable natural gas (RNG) to be mixed and sold into select US state markets. Beginning with California, which has one of the strictest fuel standards in the US and provides incentives under the Low Carbon Fuel Standard to reduce carbon intensity – CleanBay’s RNG is derived not from cows, but from poultry. Chicken manure, feathers and bedding are all converted into RNG using anaerobic digesters, providing a carbon intensity that is said to be 95% less than the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of pure fossil fuels and non-conversion of poultry waste matter. BP also has an agreement with Gevo Inc in Iowa to purchase RNG produced from cow manure, also for sale in California.

But road fuels aren’t the only avenue for large-scale embracing of renewables. It could take to the air, literally. After all, the global commercial airline fleet currently stands at over 25,000 aircraft and is expected to grow to over 35,000 by 2030. All those planes will burn a lot of fuel. With the airline industry embracing the idea of AAF (or Alternative Aviation Fuels), developments into renewable jet fuels have been striking, from traditional bio-sources such as palm or soybean oil to advanced organic matter conversion from agricultural waste and manure. Chevron, again, has signed a landmark deal to advance the commercialisation. Together with Delta Airlines and Google, Chevron will be producing a batch of sustainable aviation fuel at its El Segundo refinery in California. Delta will then use the fuel, with Google providing a cloud-based framework to analyse the data. That data will then allow for a transparent analysis into carbon emissions from the use of sustainable aviation fuel, as benchmark for others to follow. The analysis should be able to confirm whether or not the International Air Transport Association (IATA)’s estimates that renewable jet fuel can reduce lifecycle carbon intensity by up to 80%. And to strengthen the measure, Delta has pledged to replace 10% of its jet fuel with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.

In a parallel, but no less pioneering lane, France’s TotalEnergies has announced that it is developing a 100% renewable fuel for use in motorsports, using bioethanol sourced from residues produced by the French wine industry (among others) at its Feyzin refinery in Lyon. This, it believes, will reduce the racing sports’ carbon emissions by an immediate 65%. The fuel, named Excellium Racing 100, is set to debut at the next season of the FIA World Endurance Championship, which includes the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans 2022 race.

But Chevron isn’t done yet. It is also falling back on the long-standing use of vegetable oils blended into US transport fuels by signing a wide-ranging agreement with commodity giant Bunge. Called a ‘farmer-to-fuelling station’ solution, Bunge’s soybean processing facilities in Louisiana and Illinois will be the source of meal and oil that will be converted by Chevron into diesel and jet fuel. With an investment of US$600 million, Chevron will assist Bunge in doubling the combined capacity of both plants by 2024, in line with anticipated increases in the US biofuels blending mandates.

Even ExxonMobil, one of the most reticent of the supermajors to embrace renewables wholesale, is getting in on the action. Its Imperial Oil subsidiary in Canada has announced plans to commercialise renewable diesel at a new facility near Edmonton using plant-based feedstock and hydrogen. The venture does only target the Canadian market – where political will to drive renewable adoption is far higher than in the US – but similar moves have already been adopted by other refiners for the US market, including major investments by Phillips 66 and Valero.

Ultimately, these recent moves are driven out of necessity. This is the way the industry is moving and anyone stubborn enough to ignore it will be left behind. Combined with other major investments driven by European supermajors over the past five years, this wider and wider adoption of renewable can only be better for the planet and, eventually, individual bottom lines. The renewables ball is rolling fast and is only gaining momentum.

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Market Outlook:

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