Permian shale output closes gap with Saudi Arabia as rig count doubles, confirming US’ powerhouse status

Updated 21 March 2019
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Permian shale output closes gap with Saudi Arabia as rig count doubles, confirming US’ powerhouse status

  • Exxon’s 1.6 million acres in the Permian means it can approach the field as a “megaproject”
  • The majors’ Permian investments position the field to compete with Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil-producing region

NEW MEXICO: In New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert, Exxon Mobil Corp. is building a massive shale oil project that its executives boast will allow it to ride out the industry’s notorious boom-and-bust cycles.
Workers at its Remuda lease near Carlsbad — part of a staff of 5,000 spread across New Mexico and Texas — are drilling wells, operating fleets of hydraulic pumps and digging trenches for pipelines.
The sprawling site reflects the massive commitment to the Permian Basin by oil majors, who have spent an estimated $10 billion buying acreage in the top US shale field since the beginning of 2017, according to research firm Drillinginfo Inc.
The rising investment also reflects a recognition that Exxon, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and BP Plc largely missed out on the first phase of the Permian shale bonanza, while more nimble independent producers, who pioneered shale drilling technology, leased Permian acreage on the cheap.
Now that the field has made the US the world’s top oil producer, Exxon and other majors are moving aggressively to dominate the Permian and use the oil to feed their sprawling pipeline, trading, logistics, refining and chemicals businesses. The majors have 75 drilling rigs here this month, up from 31 in 2017, according to Drillinginfo. Exxon operates 48 of those rigs and plans to add seven more this year.
The majors’ expansion comes as smaller independent producers, who profit only from selling the oil, are slowing exploration, and cutting staff and budgets amid investor pressure to control spending and boost returns.
Exxon CEO Darren Woods said on March 6 that Exxon would change “the way that game is played” in shale. Its size and businesses could allow Exxon to earn double-digit percentage returns in the Permian Basin even if oil prices — now above $58 per barrel — crashed to below $35, added Senior Vice President Neil Chapman.
Exxon’s 1.6 million acres in the Permian means it can approach the field as a “megaproject,” said Staale Gjervik, head of shale subsidiary XTO Resources, whose headquarters was recently relocated to share space with its logistics and refining businesses. The firm also recently outlined plans to nearly double the capacity of a Gulf Coast refinery to process shale oil.
“It sets us up to take a longer-term view,” Gjervik said.
The majors’ Permian investments position the field to compete with Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil-producing region and solidifies the US as a powerhouse in global oil markets, said Daniel Yergin, an oil historian and vice chairman of consultancy IHS Markit.
“A decade ago, capital investment was leaving the US,” he said. “Now it’s coming home in a very big way.”
The Permian is expected to generate 5.4 million barrels per day (bpd) by 2023 — more than any single member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) other than Saudi Arabia, according to IHS Markit. Production this month, at about 4 million bpd, will about double that of two years ago.
Exxon, Chevron, Shell and BP now hold about 4.5 million acres in the Permian Basin, according to Drillinginfo. Chevron and Exxon are poised to become the biggest producers in the field, leapfrogging independent producers such as Pioneer Natural Resources.
Pioneer recently dropped a pledge to hit 1 million bpd by 2026 amid pressure from investors to boost returns. It shifted its emphasis to generating cash flow and replaced its CEO after posting a fourth-quarter profit that missed Wall Street earnings targets by 36 cents a share.

 

Meanwhile, Shell is considering a multibillion-dollar deal to buy independent producer Endeavor Energy Resources, according to people familiar with the talks. Shell declined to comment and Endeavor did not respond to a request.
Chevron said it would produce 900,000 bpd by 2023, while Exxon forecast pumping 1 million barrels per day by about 2024. That would give the two companies one-third of Permian production within five years.
At first, the rise of the Permian was driven largely by nimble explorers that pioneered new technology for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and horizontal drilling to unlock oil from shale rock, slashing production costs. The advances by smaller companies initially left the majors behind. Now, those technologies are easily copied and widely available from service firms.
Surging Permian production has overwhelmed pipelines and forced producers to sell crude at a deep discount, sapping cash and profits of independents who, unlike the majors, don’t own their own pipeline networks.
Even as the majors have ramped up operations, the total number of drilling rigs at work in the Permian has dropped to 464, from 493 in November, as independent producers have slowed production, according to oilfield services provider Baker Hughes.
Shell, by contrast, plans to keep expanding even if prices fall further, said Amir Gerges, Shell’s Permian general manager.
“We have a bit more resilience” than the independents,” he said.
In west Texas, the firm drills four to six wells at a time next to one another, a process called cube development that targets multiple layers of shale as deep as 8,000 feet.
Cube development is expensive and can take months, making it an option only for the majors and the largest independent producers. Shell has used the tactic to double production in two years, to 145,000 bpd.
The largest oil firms can also take advantage of their volume-buying power even if service companies raise prices for supplies or drilling and fracking crews, said Andrew Dittmar, a Drillinginfo analyst.
“It’s like buying at Costco versus a neighborhood market,” he said.
The majors’ rush into the market means smaller companies are going to struggle to compete for service contracts and pay higher prices, said Roy Martin, analyst with energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie.
“When you’re sitting across the negotiating table from the majors, the chips are stacked on their side,” he said.
The revival of interest in the Permian marks a reversal from the late 1990s, when production had been falling for two decades.
“All the majors and all the companies with names you’ve heard left with their employees,” said Karr Ingham, an oil and gas economist. “Conventional wisdom was this place was going to dry up.”
Chevron was the only major that stayed in the Permian. It holds 2.3 million acres and owns most of its mineral rights, too, but until recently left drilling to others.
But this month, CEO Mike Wirth called the Permian its best bet for delivering profits “north of 30 percent at low oil prices.”
“There is nothing we can invest in that delivers higher rates of return,” Wirth said this month at its annual investor meeting in New York.
Matt Gallagher, CEO of Parsley Energy Inc, calls the majors’ investments “the best form of flattery” for independents operating here.
Parsley holds 192,000 Permian acres — most of which was snatched up on the cheap during oil busts — and sees its smaller size as an advantage in shale.
“We’re not finished yet,” Gallagher said. “We can move very quickly.”
The majors have greater infrastructure, but independents continue to innovate and design better wells, said Allen Gilmer, a co-founder of Drillinginfo.
“Nothing is a bigger motivator than, ‘Am I going to be alive tomorrow?’” Gilmer said.
“Hunger and fear is something that every independent oil-and-gas person knows — and that something no major oil-and-gas person has ever felt in their career.”

FASTFACTS

5.4 million

The Permian Basin is expected to generate 5.4 million barrels of oil per day by 2023, more than any single OPEC member other than Saudi Arabia.


INTERVIEW: MENA partner at EY Matthew Branson lays out economic benefits of UAE’s ‘Expo effect’

Updated 21 April 2019
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INTERVIEW: MENA partner at EY Matthew Branson lays out economic benefits of UAE’s ‘Expo effect’

  • A total investment of 40.1 billion dirhams will create more than 900,000 “job years” at Dubai Expo 2020
  • In 18 months’ time the doors will open on the event

DUBAI: "I’m having a fairly busy life at the moment," said Matthew Benson, a partner covering the Middle East and North Africa at auditing and consulting firm EY.
He had just presented the findings of a two-year-long study into one of the most high-profile events in the near half-century history of the UAE — the looming Expo 2020 trade fair that the country, and Dubai in particular, expects will be an economic and developmental game-changer.
“I think it’s going to be an amazing event,” Benson said, a couple of days after he had unveiled his report and had had time to assess reactions to the heavily researched work.
The headline findings were eye-catching, confirming that the UAE would get huge economic benefit from the event. Dubai won the right to stage the show back in 2013, to much fanfare, and the clock has been counting down ever since.
In 18 months’ time the doors will open on the event, which has been called the biggest gathering in the history of the Arab people. Some 25 million visits are expected to be made to the site in south Dubai, putting the UAE even more firmly on the map as a global destination.
The report by EY — formerly known as Ernst & Young — was commissioned by the organizers of the show to analyze the financial and economic benefits of the event, and confidently concluded that the Expo would indeed be a step-change in the country’s history.
In the 17-year period since the event was won up until 2031 — a decade after it closes its doors — EY found that some 122.6 billion dirhams ($33.4 billion) of gross value will be added to the UAE economy. At its peak, the Expo’s contribution will be equivalent to 1.5 percent of the UAE’s annual GDP.
A total investment of 40.1 billion dirhams will create more than 900,000 “job years” — nearly 50,000 new jobs per year — and leave the permanent legacy of a brand new mini-city between Dubai and the capital Abu Dhabi. The city, dubbed “District 2020,” will be a mixed-use conurbation with offices, residential, exhibition space and leisure facilities.
“It’ll be a new city south of Dubai, and the economic benefit will go on long beyond that time frame (2031) as well … You might get more economic benefit but that has not been included in this model,” said Benson.

What the UAE has done is they had a vision and knew that (they) had to do something bold. 

Matthew Benson

However, some skeptics have argued that those benefits are not guaranteed. They point to the ambitious figure for visits — 25 million in a six-month period, with the Dubai government forecasting 20 million tourists per annum by 2020.
A viable “legacy” — a challenge faced by other Expos and big events such as the Olympics and FIFA World Cup — is not assured, the critics argue.
In addition, they point to EY’s reliance on official statistics to reach its conclusions, rather than building in other data and scenarios.
Benson, who has been working for the firm since 2013 as head of “transactional diligence” for the MENA region — rebutted those criticisms in detail.
“(The report) focuses on the impact of Expo 2020 and not on the development of the wider economy. So it’s maybe a fine distinction, but it’s based on a set of assumptions around Expo and how that would impact the economy.
“This is a forward-looking study. Really we focused on Expo and where that fits in the wider economy. It’s a macroeconomic model focusing on the incremental effects only, so it’s about what Expo has brought to the economy. It doesn’t focus on other investments that are happening. If Expo didn’t happen, this economic impact wouldn’t happen either,” he explained.
He clarified that the study — based on data from the Expo organizers and several other Dubai government departments like the transport and tourism authorities and official statistics department — is not a cost-benefit analysis of the event, weighing financial gains and returns.
“There are certain other questions that (the report) does not answer and which are not part of the aim of the study. he said.
In the early phase of the Expo project — which is currently nearing completion — the EY team expects a big boost to the UAE’s construction industry, the so-called “Expo effect,” in the UAE’s otherwise sluggish economy. “There are people working on the construction site and the Expo is happening. The impact is there. There are multiple effects going on, maybe counterbalancing the effect or maybe increasing it. Economies go through cycles over time as well,” Benson said.
When the event is up and running, the benefit will come from the spending by visitors at the site as well as in the wider Dubai economy, and also through the multiplier effect of employees specially engaged for the event.
When the curtain falls in April 2021, the Expo site will transform into District 2020, with its own internal economy. Two multinationals — German engineering giant Siemens and consultancy Accenture — have already said they will set up there, and Benson expects others to follow. The Dubai Exhibition Center will give the emirate even more capacity for the big forums and conferences, in which it is already a regional market leader.

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BIO

BORN

•Chichester, Sussex, UK, 1973

EDUCATION

•University of Bristol, mathematics

•Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, North Carolina, US

•Goethe Business School, Frankfurt, Germany

CAREER

•With EY since graduation, working in UK, Germany and Dubai

•Currently partner and transactional diligence leaderfor MENA

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The site will be “repurposed” — made ready for its long-term role — but that will not involve knocking down or removing many of the extravagant pavilions and facilities currently in place or under construction. The “construction” element of the final phase is relatively small, at 1.2 billion dirhams out of a total economic impact of 62 billion dirhams, Benson said.
In the detailed technical report which accompanied the study, EY set out the assumptions on which its findings are based. Some look optimistic, others not.
For example, a projected figure of 1.5 million local and 1.1 million international visitors for the new exhibition center, and that 55 percent of the center’s total available area will be used, look like conservative calculations in the legacy phase.
On the other hand, an 85 percent occupancy for offices, retail and food and beverage developments, in a city already bulging with such facilities, looks ambitious, as does a projected 80 percent occupancy for hotels in an already hospitality-rich environment.
And who can say with any certainty that local visitors — who make up the bulk of the total projected visitor numbers — will really stay an average of 2.4 days at the Expo, or that international visitors will visit for five days?
Similarly, the EY report says with certainty that “all Expo 2020 assets are assumed to be sold off” by the end of the event, but that forecast is surely subject to market vagaries.
Are the findings of the EY report too optimistic? “I don’t really have a view on whether they’re optimistic or not. I’d rather say they’re based on a set of assumptions as presented, and they have been modeled through,” said Benson.
Did the EY team look at the track record of previous Expos? “We haven’t focused on comparing this directly with those, on the basis that this is the first in this part of the world. Previous ones were in more mature parts of the world. For example Shanghai in 2010 was a much bigger economy,” Benson explained.
The report was also criticized for being based only on “best case scenario” figures prepared by the government, with no alternative factors — such as geopolitical or economic volatility — modeled through.
“It’s difficult to say what’s ‘best case’ and what’s not. This is all forward-looking and there’s no real range on outcomes. This is in the middle of what you’d expect to happen — it could be higher than this, it could be lower than this. The assumptions are set out as best we can. We have not assumed any real variation in the economic outlook. We haven’t taken a view on the UAE economy or the global economy. It’s based on today,” Benson said.
He did allow, however, that economic fluctuations might affect the outcome, although EY economists did not model these factors in preparing the report.
Benson, who spends a lot of time in Saudi Arabia as part of the EY team advising on various aspects of policymaking, believes that the Kingdom can learn and benefit from the Expo experience as it gets on with its own program of big events and projects.
“I think there’s a lot that Saudi Arabia is doing really well, but one can always learn. Saudi Arabia is already doing big projects and events. NEOM is one, but there are others like Formula E, the recent golf event and others. They’re much shorter than a six-month event like Expo. But they’re already doing quite a lot,” he said.
Benson expects the Expo will permanently change the way the world looks at the Middle East.
“What the UAE has done is they had a vision and knew that (they) had to do something bold,” he said. “It’s not just organic, it’s a big splash, a big push. It’s consistent with their vision to do something profound for Dubai.”