OIL COMPANIES ROUT
The slump in oil prices has become a rout. Any industry hopes for a rebound in 2016 appear to have been dashed, giving way to despair at a crash that is outpacing increasingly frantic efforts to slash costs.
According to Wood Mackenzie, the energy consultancy, barely half a dozen big projects can be expected to win the go-ahead this year. Oil companies that were planning only a few months ago to "break even" at $60 a barrel crude over coming years, having torn up their earlier budgets, must now rethink again: is $50, or less, a more realistic target?
"It's going to be a brutal year," says Wood Mac's Angus Roger. "Most companies are going to be focused on short-term survival and cutting costs."
"A lot of rebuilding of portfolios needs to be done . . . At some stage there will need to be critical decisions about getting rid of stuff which is not attractive," he adds.
BP's decision this week to axe thousands of jobs in its hard-hit exploration and production arm, and a move by Brazil's Petrobras to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending show there will be no let-up.
Rather, say analysts, with oil plunging almost to $30 a barrel, the pressure on global energy groups to shore up their finances will grow. Deeper cuts, and further delays to billions of dollars in new project spending, lie ahead.
"Companies have to be prudent in the face of what's happening," says Daniel Yergin, vice-chairman of consultancy IHS and author of the history of oil. "It's a wrenching period for the industry."
He likens the current slump, caused by a US supply glut, weaker Chinese demand and Opec's decision not to cut output to the severe downturn of the 1980s — the last time the Saudi Arabia-led cartel abandoned its traditional role as a stabilising force in the market. The anticipated return of Iranian production, should sanctions be lifted, and a stronger dollar have also weighed on crude.
Pulling the plug on capital spending is the first, and easiest, response to falling oil prices. By deferring expenditure, companies can offset the impact of dwindling revenues on cash flow and, they hope, preserve dividend payouts to investors — one of the main reasons their shares are held.
Other levers include borrowing more and cutting jobs — the industry estimates 65,000 have been lost in the North Sea alone since prices began falling. Shedding labour can also be costly. The quickest payback comes from simply putting back growth plans and waiting for the prices charged by suppliers to come down.
And that is exactly what the industry has been doing. In a comprehensive study, Wood Mac says that 68 big-ticket projects have been postponed since crude prices peaked in the summer of 2014, representing $380bn of capital expenditure, a "considerable jump" from the $200bn it identified in June.
It says: "What began in late 2014 as a haircut to discretionary spend on exploration and pre-development projects has become a full surgical operation to cut out all non-essential operational and capital expenditure."
Included in the total are two so-called mega-projects: the second phase of Kazakhstan's troubled Kashagan field, run by an international consortium and accounting for some 600,000 barrels a day of peak production, and Mozambique's Golfinho natural gasfield, developed by Anadarko.
In all, some 27bn barrels of oil equivalent in reserves, or 2.9m barrels per day of liquids production, will not come online until early in the next decade, later than envisaged. High cost deepwater fields, particularly those in Angola, Nigeria and the Gulf of Mexico, requiring heavy upfront investment, account for more than half of that deferred production. Angola represents one-fifth of the delayed spending.
Canada, where the US supply glut and lower prices have rendered many oil sands projects uneconomic, accounts for more than 4m boe of deferred reserves.
Just six major projects were given the green light in 2015. Two of these were deepwater: BP's West Nile Delta in Egypt and Shell's Appomattox in the Gulf of Mexico, which is estimated to break even at $50 — much less than the $62 average break-even price of those that were postponed.
Very few such developments are likely to be approved this year. At a flat $60 Brent crude price, Wood Mac calculates that 85 per cent of "greenfield" developments still awaiting approval fail to achieve internal rates of return of 15 per cent, and most fail to generate even a 10 per cent return.
The prospects for these fields are "bleak". Moreover, while companies will feel cash flow benefits from putting off expenditure, there is little evidence yet of widespread savings being made via suppliers. In contrast to US shale, not included in the study, and despite a collapse in offshore rig prices, supplier costs have come down only 10 per cent for deepwater and oil sands.
"Some operators are not waiting," says Wood Mac. "A growing list of US independents — including Marathon and ConocoPhillips — have flagged exits from global deepwater positions to concentrate on domestic shale plays.
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