Peak Oil has lost its leading prophet with the death of Houston banker Matt Simmons. Since many nations refuse to share detailed oil data it may be years before his warnings of ebbing production are vindicated — or discredited. But his crusade for more information on supplies is as urgent as ever.
The founder of Simmons & Co added plenty of gravitas to the “peak oil” movement — which contains more than its share of wing-nuts. His 2005 book “Twilight in the Desert” took on the biggest oil producer of all, Saudi Arabia. Drawing on 200 technical papers, he concluded that the kingdom’s largest oil field Ghawar would soon top out. As a result, oil’s friendly giant would soon start to struggle to keep pace with rising oil demand.
U.S. oil companies are becoming less liquid — but not in a financial sense. With natural gas so plentiful, Big Oil is fast becoming Big Gas. Shareholders may be underestimating the impact of the shift on future returns while an unexpected advantage is tipping to the oiliest majors.
America’s energy titans are finding it ever harder to ramp up oil output. Exxon Mobil is on track to pump 5 percent less this year than in 2005, according to Barclays Capital forecasts. Instead, the company has turned to gas for growth. A big project in Papua New Guinea and the XTO acquisition are accelerating the shift. Gas, which accounted for 38 percent of Exxon’s output in 2005, could account for up to 48 percent next year.
Disgruntled investors have wiped more than $40 billion off the value of Exxon Mobil since its splurge on U.S. gas giant XTO Energy — almost exactly the firm’s price tag. With Congress ditching carbon emissions rules, clean-burning gas looks like a bad bet. Yet to assume that XTO has zero value seems wrongheaded.
Even before lawmakers went cold on limiting greenhouse gases, investors were skeptical of the purchase. Between the announcement of the deal on December 14 and Thursday’s bumper second-quarter results, Exxon stock had slid 16 percent. Adjusting for an average 4 percent fall of peers Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell, investors have lopped slightly more than XTO’s entire $41 billion enterprise value off Exxon’s market capitalization.
ConocoPhillips is something of a prodigal son. Investors have taken the U.S. energy group back into the fold since it repented its wayward habits. It’s understandable that the valuation gap with peers would close. But it’s hard to see why Conoco is already rated almost in line with the best-in-class Exxon Mobil. It still has plenty to prove.
Admittedly Conoco’s second-quarter numbers, reported on Wednesday, will help. With far more exposure to U.S. refining than the likes of Exxon and Chevron, Conoco cashed in on a recovery in crack spreads — the profit made turning crude oil into fuels.
BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil disaster knocked Goldman Sachs off the front pages. It’s just the UK oil major’s luck that its best news in 86 days was overshadowed by Goldman’s settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Few will praise BP’s speed, but its initial complete capping of the well is a big step forward. Restoring credibility and relations with Uncle Sam will, however, take years.
It could still go wrong again. But if the seemingly successful test on Thursday turns into part of a longer-term solution to the leak, it will mark the end of a period that has been torture for BP — but only the beginning of a healing process for the company and its bruised shareholders. For the first time since April, there won’t be live pictures of its oil gushing into U.S. waters. And the company’s bill will no longer be ticking higher by the barrel. All being well, BP will get a breather from bad publicity while it works on the permanent answer — its relief wells.
It’s potentially hazardous to swallow a meal a third your size. But it could make sense for Apache to grab $10 billion of BP’s Alaskan assets. The U.S. firm’s flair for squeezing oil from older wells makes it an ideal buyer — and BP is a keener seller than it was.
With a market capitalization just shy of $30 billion and only $2 billion in cash on hand, Apache might not find it easy to digest a big deal. Nor is it coming to the table with an empty stomach. Just days before BP’s Gulf of Mexico rig explosion in April, Apache snapped up Mariner Energy for $2.7 billion and bought $1 billion of assets from Devon Energy.
Exxon Mobil’s $31 billion hedge is way out of the money. Gas prices have tumbled since the U.S. oil giant agreed to pay that amount for the gas producer XTO. That doesn’t make the deal a bust. A carbon tax might make the XTO purchase look smart — but Exxon benefits for as long as Congress twiddles its thumbs.
To his credit, Exxon Chief Executive Rex Tillerson has made little attempt to mask the grim economics of the natural gas market. If anything, these have worsened since December when Exxon broke a decade-long deal fast and gobbled up XTO. Since then, the already depressed gas price has fallen nearly another 20 percent. The very technical success of drillers uncovering ever larger quantities of shale gas is proving their financial undoing.
Crisis? What crisis? The oil industry showed no signs on Monday of being cowed by BP’s ongoing woes and the resulting Gulf of Mexico drilling freeze. Noble Corp’s $4 billion rig rental deal with Royal Dutch Shell and its $2.2 billion all-cash acquisition of Frontier Drilling look like ballsy but not reckless votes of confidence in deepwater exploration.
Oil executives are generally hard to intimidate. Even so, their relatively sanguine response to the ongoing Macondo disaster looks surprising. Noble’s announcement is the clearest sign yet of the mentality. Of course, the company wanted to find some use for $850 million of cash burning a hole in its pocket. But rather than return it to shareholders, Noble is doubling up its bet on deep-sea drilling with Frontier, or FDR Holdings, whose flagship assets are two spanking new ultra-deepwater rigs due to be finished this year. They’ll be able to drill at twice the depth of BP’s ill-fated well.
Rival oilmen have every reason to cast BP as a rogue. But none more so than Anadarko, its silent partner in the leaking Macondo well. If BP is proven grossly negligent, Anadarko is absolved of liability. If that doesn’t happen, it could face crippling costs.
Anadarko only invested in the Macondo well in December 2009 after drilling had already started. It had not a soul on the doomed rig and had not been consulted about the well design. Yet its 25 percent stake has ensured the drubbing of a lifetime. Even after accounting for the slide in peers’ valuations, investors have sliced close to an extra $13 billion off Anadarko’s market capitalization, leaving it worth some $22 billion.
BP’s name is so besmirched in DC that restoring its old Anglo-Iranian Oil Company moniker could hardly worsen things. It’s partly political posturing, but there’s a real threat too. Venezuelan-style expropriation may be a stretch, but Uncle Sam could still hurt the British oil giant badly.
The typically even-tempered President Barack Obama has talked about finding some “ass to kick,” and BP investors, who have sold off the company’s shares sharply, are right to worry. Among the latest ideas aired by U.S. officials are making BP pay oil workers laid off as a result of the broad drilling moratorium imposed by the government, and forcing the company to suspend dividend payments. Some of these proposals test the limits of the law. But Uncle Sam has plenty of real sway over BP.