Oil majors on track for sweet spot this year as pre-crash investments ripen

The oil majors are not increasing their drilling budgets. Instead they are benefiting from money invested before the rout.

Much of the expected increase in production is coming from offshore oil and gas projects approved at the start of the decade. Matthew Brown / AP Photo
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Big Oil is poised to reap rewards this year as investments made before the crude-price slump pay off just as the recovery starts.

Seven of the world's largest energy companies will together boost oil and natural gas output by 398,000 barrels a day, the most since since 2010, according to data from the Oslo-based consultant Rystad Energy. In 2018, output will rise even faster.

The oil majors are not increasing their drilling budgets. Instead they are benefiting from money invested before the rout. Lower costs combined with higher output would allow companies including ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell to maximise their gains from improved oil prices. Should crude remain above us$50 a barrel, 2017 could be a break-out year, eliminating the need to borrow to pay dividends, according to analysts at Sanford C Bernstein.

“They could hit a sweet spot this year,” said Mark Tabrett, a London-based analyst at Bernstein. “Heavy investments of previous years are paying off with more production, costs have been cut and the companies are in a position to take advantage of that when oil prices rise.”

Much of the expected increase is coming from offshore oil and gas projects approved at the start of the decade, said Espen Erlingsen, the vice-president for analysis at Rystad. They are the kind of mammoth projects that are difficult to shut down once they get going.

Included is Chevron’s Gorgon liquefied natural gas project in Australia, which partly resumed operations last week, and Kazakhstan’s Kashagan field, in which Eni, Exxon, Shell, and Total all have stakes, which began producing last year. Eni expects oil and gas production to climb to a record in 2017 even as spending continues to fall.

After reaching an intraday low of $27.10 a barrel on January 20, Brent oil prices more than doubled to a high of $57.89 on December 12. Futures traded on Wednesday at $53.85 a barrel, up 0.4 per cent, as of 7:22am London time. The global benchmark rose 52 per cent last year, its biggest yearly gain since 2009. Shares in the majors, meanwhile, rose across the board, led by Shell, whose B shares gained 53 per cent in London, the best annual increase since at least 1990.

Brent averaged about $45 a barrel in 2016, and is expected to rise above $55 this year, according to the median of 45 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Yet the majors, still smarting from more than two years of depressed prices, have expressed a reluctance to increase spending.

“For us this will be about not starting to run too fast,” Statoil chief executive Eldar Saetre said at a conference in Oslo last week. “There won’t be a lot of new activity initiated when it comes to larger projects in 2017.”

Rystad estimates that the seven companies will boost output by about 670,000 barrels a day next year. Still, years of under-investment during the time when oil prices were low mean the production gains may be short lived.

“Output should start declining eventually for the majors that slowed project-sanctioning,” said Rob West, an analyst at Redburn (Europe), a London-based equity broker. “Field-by-field models suggest that’s a problem for 2020.”

A plan by Opec and 11 other nations to curb their supply and boost prices will not stand in the way of these companies’ growth plans, Mr West said.

While they all have production in Opec countries, "the cuts are mostly concentrated outside of the majors' portfolios, or cover assets that were declining anyway", he said.

“The majors are now starting to harvest from the investments they did at the beginning of this decade,” Mr Erlingsen said. “Production is expected to grow, while investments are falling.”

* Bloomberg


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