the future of oil mega-projects

My friend Bruce pointed out in a comment last Friday that the shale oil explosion in the US has come very quickly, and as a surprise to most.  Could there be a similar resurgence of the mega-projects that the big international oil companies have typically launched–and are the cause of the huge cost writeoffs they are now making?

My thoughts:


–I assume the current administration in Washington will encourage domestic pipeline construction and reduce/eliminate support for renewables.  This would push further into the future the time when renewables will be price competitive with, and begin to replace, fossil fuels in a widespread way.  At the same time, increased availability of fossil fuels would tend to keep a cap on their price–which pushes the changeover to renewables even further into the future.

–if the chief oil exporting nations think this way (and I believe they do), there won’t be the panicky sense of urgency to produce oil as fast as possible that would prevail if they thought renewables would begin to substitute for fossil fuels in, say, ten years.

–I have friends in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania (the Marcellus Shale) who sold the mineral rights to their land to an oil company several years ago.  They tell me there are seven or eight oil- or gas-bearing strata below the one being tapped now.  If this is any indication, profitable shale drilling can go on for much longer than the consensus expects.

–the onshore shale oil/gas wells that smaller independent firms drill tend to use simple equipment, take a short time to get up and running and play out in, say, two years.  If I had to make up an oil price breakeven point for the typical fracked well, I’d say $30 a barrel.

–the offshore megaprojects that the big integrateds specialize in tend to involve very deep wells that take a long time to drill, use quarter-billion dollar+ floating drilling rigs to do so, and which tend to be located in remote, inhospitable, infrastructure-poor areas controlled by potentially unstable governments.  On the other hand, they tend to produce oil/gas for twenty years or more.  Breakeven?  …a gross generalization would be $60 a barrel.

–onshore shale wells in the US tend to cost around $12 million and to produce $35 million in output before they play out.   Fields, say, in deep water offshore Africa or in the Arctic, can require billions of dollars in upfront investment.  In addition, it’s possible that terms will be renegotiated in its favor by the owning government if the wells turn out to be more prolific than expected.  So the risk profile for this type of project is far higher, and the payback period far longer, than from the type of domestic onshore drilling done by independents.  It’s also at best marginally profitable at today’s oil price.  This suggests to me that the big oils will continue to prioritize their lowest risk, but also lowest potential, projects.

–can costs for big integrateds fall from here?  Maybe.  But those for frackers would likely fall in line, too.  And the political risks + the substantial upfront costs caused by challenging physical environments will likely remain for Big Oil projects in spite of future breakthroughs in technology.  So my guess is that the barriers to greenfield mega-projects will remain high.

Of course, neither frackers nor the large integrateds can match the lifting costs for established wells in Saudi Arabia of around $2 a barrel.

Middle East

–Many Middle Eastern oil-producing countries have young, growing populations and economies that are fundamentally dependent on sales of oil.  The government is typically the main employer.  Over the past decade, government spending will typically have expanded in line with oil revenues, to the point where now, with the oil price more than 50% off its highs, substantial government budget deficits are common.  Reorientation of these economies is urgently needed, but is also, like anywhere else, typically opposed by beneficiaries of the status quo.  This is a recipe for political instability.

–the US is likely going to be energy self-sufficient within a few years.   This will lessen the economic motivation for the country to intrude into, ore even maintain an interest in, Middle Eastern politics.  Other motives for doing so will remain, but my guess is that political willingness will wane, as well.







thinking about Big Oil

I’m starting to feel I should be interested in oil stocks again.  That’s mostly because I think that we’ve already seen the lows for the oil price earlier in this year, when quotes were flirting with $25 a barrel.  I continue to think that crude will trade in a range between $40 and $60.

Under normal circumstances, I’d figure that the big multinational integrated oils would be the safest bet and that one could add some oilfield services shares to provide speculative upside potential.

For today, however, I don’t think the traditional formula is right.  Instead, I think the main thing to come to grips with is the technological change that hydraulic fracturing has brought to the industry.  I think this is similar to what happened in the steel industry when mini-mills began to compete with blast furnaces  …or to semiconductor manufacturing when third-party fabrication plants opened in Taiwan, enabling the separation of thought-intensive design from capital-intensive plant ownership  …or to the computer industry when the minicomputer and the PC replaced the mainframe.

If I’m right about this, then anything that has to do with the older order is out.  This means multi-year mega projects in remote or hostile environments (physically or politically) are substantially more risky than they have been.  It also means that the builders of giant offshore drilling equipment to find, lift or transport this kind of output aren’t coming back any time soon.  Nor are the service companies that own this sort of equipment and specialize in this kind of drilling.

The Big Oil majors, who have been the leading proponents of exotic mega projects, must also come into question, as well.   How quickly can/will they mentally adjust to a new era of abundant oil rather than perpetual shortage?  What will they do about projects that are now under way?

What other industries undergoing radical transformation have shown in the past is that the incumbents take a surprisingly long time to adjust to the new circumstances.  If that proves true again, then the best way to make money will be to undertake the tedious task of examining smaller fracking-related drillers and service companies to see how they will benefit.


sorting out oil-related stocks

The very large drop in oil prices over the past eight months has had negative effects on all oil-related firms.  The amount of suffering varies considerably, however, based on how a given firm is involved in the hydrocarbon business.  Here’s my take on the various sub-industries:

1.  oilfield services companies.   It’s a general rule in business that when a manufacturer slows down, its suppliers feel more pain than the manufacturer itself.  This is true in the oilfields, as well.

–Lower output prices mean some new drilling projects are cancelled.  This is bad for the contract drillers who supply and operate the rigs that do the actual drilling.  Offshore, where projects are typically larger and more expensive–therefore riskier, is a worse place to be than onshore.  Worst hit of all are the suppliers of the oilfield services firms, like the companies that manufacture new drilling rigs.

–Suppliers of goods and services, from seismic analyses of prospective acreage to drilling mud, are hurt as well.  Being in support for development of existing projects is better than being involved in new exploration.

2.  high-cost alternatives   …like liquefied natural gas (LNG) or tar sands.  Projects may no longer be economically viable.  I think LNG is more at risk.  Transporting natural gas from, say, the US to the EU or from Australia to Japan requires a multi-billion dollar investment in plant and equipment to liquefy and ship the gas to market (the alternative would be an underwater pipeline).  Because of this, I think new projects are non-starters in today’s world.  As for projects already up and running, we have no way of knowing how contracts are structured–that is, how the selling price of the gas is affected by the oil price drop.  This determines whether the pain of the oil price decline is borne by the LLNG project or by the utility customers who ultimately use the gas.

The situation for green alternatives, like solar and wind, is less clear.

3.  reserve valuations     The asset value of any oil exploration/production company depends heavily on the size and value of its oil reserves.  The lower oil price clearly hurts the value of reserves.  What’s less obvious is that reserves are defined as barrels of oil that can be brought to the surface and sold at a profit at the current price.  Some barrels that are economically viable at $100 a barrel may not be at $50.  If so, the size of reserves will also shrink.  In an extreme case, a company with a million barrels of reserves worth $50 million at an oil price of $100 might have 0 barrels worth $0 at a $50 oil price.

4.   US-based exploration companies     Smaller firms have been the leaders in shale oil production.  Generally speaking, they are hurt worse  by shrinkage in cash flow and downward revisions in reserve value than the big international firms.  To the extent they’ve borrowed to finance drilling, their problems may be magnified.  As a practical matter, however, there’s probably less scope for creditors to take action against a firm if it has issued junk bonds than if it has bank loans.

5.  international majors    The profits of these firms are more insulated against the price drop than their smaller rivals.  How so?

–They have petrochemicals and refining/marketing businesses that benefit from the lower price because they’re users of crude oil.

–They have fields they own that may have been operating for decades, and which therefore are still profitable at today’s prices.

–Also, in their deals to develop fields with national oil companies in foreign countries, they typically are paid a return on invested capital.  In other words, they don’t gain or lose much (if anything) as the oil price rises and falls.

No, they don’t escape unscathed.  They do lose from the lower price they get from production they own in the US and Europe, but their losses are much less than the pure domestic exploration and production companies.

6.   I haven’t looked at refining and marketing companies.  I assume that they aren’t fully passing along to their customers the benefits of lower crude oil costs, but I haven’t checked.

Of course, if/when the oil price begins to rise again (I don’t expect that to be any time soon), the most responsive stocks will likely be those of the oilfield services firms, with those of the international majors moving the least.