The final set of financial numbers for 2019, and for an interesting decade in terms of oil prices, came to an end as a tale of two parts. With the quarter characterised by stubborn crude prices despite OPEC+’s efforts and slumping gas prices amid a global glut, it was always going to be a challenging quarter. Most numbers from supermajors and majors came in as disappointing, but there were several bright spots where even the most optimistic expectations were exceed.
Shell, the first to report, set the tone for the cycle, showing a 48% fall in net profits from a 19% y-o-y drop in revenue. Citing weaker refining and chemical margins from slowing global growth with China and the US still locked in a trade war, the weaker results led Shell to scale back the pace of its US$25 billion share buyback programme. With only US$1 billion of shares to be bought back in Q12020 – down from the regular US$2.75 billion per quarter. Shell warned that the programme’s schedule was still at risk due to the softening global economy. It is likely that Shell will miss its deadline of completing the buyback by end-2020; investors were not impressed, and sent Shell’s share prices down to a two-year low in response.
The US supermajors came next, with both ExxonMobil and Chevron failing to meet market expectations. For ExxonMobil, revenue and net profits were both down by 5%, with the company blaming the ‘tough environment’ and depressed margins for its oil, gas, refining and chemicals businesses that will spill into 2020. Its financials, however, were boosted by the sale of its non-strategic assets in Norway, and noted that its oil extraction in Guyana was going ahead of schedule and could have a positive impact on Q1 financials. Unlike ExxonMobil, Chevron did not have strategic asset sales to fall back on. In fact, it went the opposite way. Having warned investors that it was preparing to take a major write-down on a collection of assets, including shale gas production in Appalachia and deepwater projects in the Gulf of Mexico, the final charge came in at US$10.4 billion. That wiped Chevron’s profits out, reporting a net loss of US$6.6 billion for Q419. Segment performance was stable, beating analyst expectations in some cases. But the pressure of low oil and gas prices will persist.
Things then got better. In the final results for retiring CEO Bob Dudley, who will be replaced by Bernard Looney, BP reported net profits of US$2.57 billion, exceeding even then highest analyst estimate. With a solid upstream performance and boosted by its in-house trading arm, BP bucked the negative trend, allowing it to raise its dividend level, a notion that it had rejected in the last quarter, while also completing a US$1.5 billion share buyback programme. Rounding off the quintet, Total also exceed the expectations of the market. Although the French company was also affected by slumping natural gas prices, along with strikes at its French refineries, record production boosted net profits to US$3.17 billion, almost unchanged y-o-y. The ramp-up of key natural gas projects, Yamal in Russia and Ichthys in Australia, along with the start of the Egina and Kaombo crude oil projects in West Africa, raised upstream output by 9% over a quarter where all other rivals saw their production decline.
When the decade started in 2010, crude oil prices were riding high at US$80/b. It would soon peak at nearly US$120/b in 2011, stay elevated for 3 years, halving by end-2014, slumping down to US$30/b in 2016 before beginning a gradual recovery. This 10-year see-saw ride has been mirrored in the financial performance of the energy supermajors. With a new decade starting with plenty of uncertainty, the fiscal discipline adopted since 2015 by the supermajors will be key to supporting their business activities going forward in troubled times.
Supermajor Financials Q4 2019:
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In the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) February Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), EIA forecasts that the Lower 48 states’ working natural gas in storage will end the 2019–20 winter heating season (November 1–March 31) at 1,935 billion cubic feet (Bcf), with 12% more inventory than the previous five-year average. This increase is the result of mild winter temperatures and continuing strong production. EIA forecasts that net injections during the refill season (April 1–October 31) will bring the total working gas in storage to 4,029 Bcf, which, if realized, would be the largest monthly inventory level on record.
Mild winter temperatures for the current winter have put downward pressure on natural gas prices and led to smaller withdrawals from natural gas into storage. Year-over-year growth in dry natural gas production and natural gas exports—especially liquefied natural gas (LNG)—throughout 2019 also affected natural gas storage levels. On October 11, 2019, the total natural gas in storage surpassed the previous five-year average—an indicator of typical storage levels—for the first time since mid-2017.
The total natural gas in storage at the start of this heating season was 3,725 Bcf on October 31, 2019. EIA expects withdrawals from working natural gas storage to total 1,790 Bcf at the end of March 2020. If realized, this would be the least natural gas withdrawn during a heating season since the winter of 2015–16, when temperatures were also mild.
Injections into and withdrawals from natural gas storage balance seasonal and other fluctuations in consumption. Natural gas demand is greatest in the winter months, when residential and commercial demand for natural gas for space heating increases. Natural gas consumption in the power sector is greatest in summer months, when overall electricity demand is relatively high because of air conditioning.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook
In the latest STEO, EIA expects the total working natural gas in storage will exceed the previous five-year average for the remainder of 2020, despite declines in dry natural gas production, increases in natural gas consumption in the electric power sector, and increases in natural gas exports. EIA expects monthly natural gas production to decline from last year’s record levels in 2020 as lower natural gas prices reduce incentives for natural gas-directed drilling and as lower crude oil prices reduce incentives for oil-directed drilling and associated gas production.
At the start of February, a major new find was jointly announced by the two largest emirates within the UAE: the oil-rich Abu Dhabi and the ambitious Dubai. Between them, they literally made the world’s largest natural gas discovery since 2005. Located at the border between the two sheikdoms, the Jebel Ali field is estimated to contain some 80 trillion scf of natural gas, the largest global find since the Galkynysh field in Turkmenistan.
Stretching over 5,000 square km, an exploration campaign by Abu Dhabi involving over 10 wells confirmed the enormous discovery in early January 2020. The shallow nature of the onshore reserves should make it easier to extract gas at lower costs, hastening the time-to-market. At current estimated figures, Jebel Ali would be the fourth-largest gas field in the Middle East, behind Qatar’s North Field, Iran’s South Pars and Abu Dhabi’s own Bab field.
The politics of the UAE can be complicated; each emirate is essentially self-governing with federal oversight, which is dominated by Abu Dhabi and Dubai (which always hold the President and Prime Minister roles, according to convention). This essentially means that each emirate has grew quite independently. Fujairah, for example, developed into a bunkering port, while Sharjah went into industry and manufacturing. Dubai is globally famous for its titanic real estate projects, pursued finance, services and media, while Abu Dhabi, the largest and most blessed of all with hydrocarbon resources, turned into an energy powerhouse. Oil & gas wealth in the UAE is mainly in Abu Dhabi; so while the Jebel Ali discovery is a welcome addition for Abu Dhabi, it is a game changer for Dubai, which imports most of its energy needs.
Speculation has raised that possibility that the Jebel Ali field could vault the UAE into gas self-sufficiency, because even Abu Dhabi imports gas. The UAE has a stated goal to be gas independent by 2030. On paper, that’s possible. Abu Dhabi’s ADNOC has agreed to develop the field with Dubai’s gas supplier, the Dubai Supply Authority (DUSUP), with the entire supply will be channel to DUSUP for use in Dubai. Jebel Ali could begin producing gas by 2023, and will likely be distributed domestically through pipeline. The enormous reserves could supply the entire UAE’s gas demand for nearly 30 years, assuming optimal recovery conditions. However, in practice, self-sufficiency might take longer to achieve.
Dubai and indeed, Abu Dhabi are currently reliant on Qatar for their gas supply. An existing sales agreement that expires in 2032 sees Qatar pipe 2 bcf/d of gas to the UAE through Abu Dhabi. The problem is that these neighbours are erstwhile friends. A division in the Middle East between the pro-Saudi Arabia and pro-Iran blocs has caused a rift. Led by Saudi Arabia, several Persian Gulf states including the UAE implemented a diplomatic and trade blockade on Qatar, isolating it. The blockade, slightly weakened, still continues today. Even now, planes flying into Qatar have to make strange manoeuvres when approaching to avoid encroaching on Saudi and UAE airspace. However, the gas supply arrangement remains in place.
And this is where the Jebel Ali discovery could come in handy. Qatar is already on track to be self-sufficient in gas terms by 2025, but will probably honour the Qatar deal until expiration. Dubai has been increasingly reliant on LNG through an FSRU for power generation, but has attempted over the years to kick-start a number of coal or solar-power projects. Jebel Ali won’t kick the addiction, but it could definitely reduce Dubai’s reliance on Qatari gas.
Jebel Ali wasn’t the only recent gas discovery made in the UAE. Further north, the Sharjah National Oil Corp and Italy’s Eni announced a new onshore gas and condensate discovery. Though tiny in comparison to Jebel Ali, some 50 mscf/d of lean gas and condensate. The cumulative effects of these discoveries could make gas self-sufficiency a reality sooner. At this point, the UAE consumes some 7.4 bcf gas per day, while marketed production is some 6.2 bcf/d. An ambitious plan to develop Abu Dhabi’s large gas fields was the rationale behind naming the 2030 self-sufficiency deadline. With the discovery of Jebel Ali, that can now be brought forward by a couple of years at least. And there might even be some left over to be exported as LNG
The UAE Major Gas Projects:
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 17 February 2020 – Brent: US$53/b; WTI: US$49/b
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