Bloomberg carried a report late last week titled “Goldman Says Oil Market’s Too Jittery When There’s No Need to Be.” The report summarized a memo from Goldman Sachs analysts positing that the just-completed extension of the deal between OPEC and Russia to limit oil exports “indicates a reduced risk of both unexpected increases in supply as well as excess draws in stockpiles.”
The report didn’t address the reality that one of the main reasons why the crude markets remain jittery is very likely due to all the conflicting reporting in the energy-related news media leading up to that extension. While there was never any real, firm reason to doubt the extension would get done, pretty much every day in November was filled with speculative stories with click-bait headlines expressing doubts the parties could reach agreement.
While this is just the nature of the U.S. news media in general these days, the reality is that there has been precious little volatility in crude prices throughout the second half of 2017. In fact, on June 19, I wrote the following:
The mid-year review processes [for corporate upstream companies] I mention there are now coming to conclusions, and as a result of those reviews, we can expect the domestic rig count to level off and even perhaps decline slightly over the second half of 2017.
That’s exactly what has happened as these large independent producers scaled back their drilling budgets for the second half of this year, and it’s the main reason the frequent ups and downs in crude prices that had characterized the previous two-plus years have been replaced by what has been a steady rise in prices over the last five months. The key understanding to grasp in this equation is that, on the global stage.
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A good friend of mine who runs the government affairs shop at a large independent producer has a favorite saying: You can always count on the oil and gas industry to mess up a good thing. The last time he said that to me was about this time a year ago, when it was apparent that, after a terrible year during which the oil price for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) had sunk as low as $26/bbl, the price would top $50 by the end of the year in the wake of the agreement between OPEC, Russia and several other non-OPEC nations to curtail exports.
We were discussing the probability that, in response to that higher commodity price, the upstream segment of the industry would respond by activating a large number of idled drilling rigs early in 2017 and drill its way right back down to a lower price. Which, of course, is exactly what happened: The industry brought more than 200 additional rigs online during January and February, and another 100 or so during the next couple of months, and the market responded by trading for WTI at $43/bbl by the end of April, even as OPEC and Russia reported high levels of compliance with their lower production quotas.
Now here we are, coming toward the end of another year, and once again we have a situation in which crude prices are ramping up to an even higher level, thanks to steadily rising demand, anticipation that OPEC and Russia will renew their export agreement through 2018, and other favorable market signals. One of those other favorable signals is the fact that the rig count in the U.S. has fallen off by about 70 rigs in the last seven weeks, as shale producers have executed on more conservative drilling budgets during the second half of the year. As a result, the rate of increase in overall domestic oil production has basically leveled off at levels the market can absorb.
So will the U.S. industry mess up a good thing again in 2018? It might surprise my good friend that this time I don’t think it will, at least not to the extent that it did over the first half of 2017. This view could change by the end of December, but right now there are several factors that indicate that, while drilling will definitely pick up again after January 1, it will be a more muted response than we saw this year.
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The popular joke about Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk is that every time his company reports another quarterly operational loss, he makes another high-profile speech about creating a human colony on Mars. After last week, Musk may need to consider making a series of such speeches.
Not only did Tesla report another quarterly loss last week, it reported its biggest single-quarter loss since starting business in 2009. Its Q3 2017 loss of $619 million almost doubled its previous record quarterly loss, which came in Q2 2017. That second-quarter loss barely exceeded the company’s Q1 loss of $330 million.
As if to heap insult onto injury, just a couple of days after Musk had to acknowledge his company’s worst financial quarter, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives unveiled its proposed tax overhaul for both individual and corporate taxpayers. While the GOP plan would lower the corporate tax rate on corporate profits to 20%, from its current 35%, that is hardly relevant to Tesla, which has never reported an annual profit in its history and in fact has only twice reported a quarterly profit.
Making matters even worse, not just for Tesla but for all other manufacturers of electric vehicles in the U.S., the GOP tax plan would repeal the existing $7,500 tax credit available to purchasers of these cars. This credit, along with similar credit and rebate programs available in the various states, has enabled EVs to be at least somewhat price competitive with gasoline and diesel cars. Were the credit to go away, it is very likely that sales of EVs would plummet, a reality that no amount of speeches or press releases about Mars could hope to offset.
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During his campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump repeatedly promised he would save the nation’s struggling coal industry by rolling back regulations enacted during the Obama years, and he has made strong efforts to keep his word. But the extent to what the President would be able to do to keep this pledge was always severely limited, by the constitutional limits on presidential powers, the vagaries of the regulatory process, the ability by opponents of his priorities to tie anything he tries to do up in the court system for years, and by the realities of the marketplace.
So it was somewhat ironic and telling that the following two announcements came within a few days of one another:
- On October 6, Luminant announced it would be permanently closing its huge, 1800 mwh coal-fired Monticello power plant in Titus County, Texas by January 2018; and
- On October 9, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced his agency would formally propose a new rule to replace the Obama era Clean Power Plan (CPP), following up on the executive order issued by President Trump on March 27.
Mr. Pruitt admitted his agency has no firm proposed substitute at this point, but rather will seek public comment and participation in developing a plan for reducing power plant emissions that would ultimately replace the CPP. Regardless of how that process of public input is conducted, the EPA’s action will be met by strong resistance, as evidenced by the typically inflammatory statement issued by Micheal Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, as cited by the Washington Post:
“With this news, Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt will go down in infamy for launching one of the most egregious attacks ever on public health, our climate, and the safety of every community in the United States. He’s proposing to throw out a plan that would prevent thousands of premature deaths and tens of thousands of childhood asthma attacks every year.”
Mr. Pruitt can rest assured that his proposal to repeal and replace the CPP will be challenged in the federal courts at every conceivable opportunity not only by anti-development groups like Sierra Club, but also by the many Democratic state attorneys general who have already coordinated suits against several other Trump Administration energy and environment-related proposals.
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A headline in Tuesday’s online edition of The Houston Chronicle, “Drillers Choke Off Dollars To Permian Basin Operations,” may have unintentionally caused confusion regarding the current state of play in the country’s most active drilling and oil-producing basin.
The story to which this headline was attached references a report by the firm Wood MacKenzie that discusses how upstream merger-and-acquisition activity in the Permian has trailed off somewhat dramatically in recent months. This is entirely true. As The Chronicle points out, Wood MacKenzie’s data indicates: “Drillers spent $35 billion in West Texas over a nine-month period that ended in early spring. By comparison, the collective value of land deals of the last six months is less than $5 billion.”
Someone at The Chronicle apparently realized that the initial headline was somewhat confusing ― the Wood McKenzie report does not talk about any slowdown in drilling ― because the headline was later changed to read “Rising Costs, Land Prices Have ‘Taken The Edge Off’ Permian Basin.” It was inevitable that the upstream M&A fever that developed in the Permian last summer was bound to eventually slow down. As geographically huge as the Basin is, there is a limit to the amount of acreage within it that could rationally be evaluated to meet acquisition costs that in some deals exceeded $40,000 per acre. So it is not surprising at all that the pace of land and reserves transactions has slowed dramatically.
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In its infinite wisdom (OK, I’m kidding just a little here), the Texas Legislature showed great foresight during its 1981 session, creating what the state calls the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund but what has since come to be commonly known as the Rainy Day Fund. At the time, policymakers took advantage of a great boom time in the petroleum industry, using the state’s oil and gas severance tax receipts as the funding source for virtually the entire fund balance.
Over the last 36 years, the Rainy Day Fund has proved to be exactly what it was billed to be back in 1981: a fund that has had the effect of stabilizing the state’s budget situation. As an example, the Great Recession created huge revenue shortfalls for the state government going into both the 2009 and 2011 legislative sessions, forcing policymakers to cut spending on state services deeply. But the ability to take billions of dollars from the Rainy Day Fund ensured that cuts to the bone did not become cuts into the marrow of those services.
The Rainy Day Fund has also allowed legislators to address other pressing state issues without impacting the budget’s General Fund. The 2013 session of the legislature funded the state’s entire $50 billion State Water Plan by tapping the Rainy Day Fund for $2 billion, establishing a revolving line of credit that will be used to finance a large variety of dams and other water projects in the coming decades. That same session also, with the approval of the state’s voters, tapped the Rainy Day Fund for $2.25 billion to fund much-needed road improvement projects all over Texas.
Even after all those and other large, special withdrawals over the last decade, the Rainy Day Fund today retains a balance of over $10 billion, money that is available to help Houston and other areas of Southeast Texas rebuild from Hurricane Harvey. In short, the Texas Rainy Day Fund is a pretty phenomenal success story for which the oil and gas industry rarely receives much credit.
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I’ve written entirely too much about the Jones Act this year, but like a bad penny, it just keeps turning up in the public discourse. Last time I addressed this subject, it was over an effort by the U.S. shipping industry actually expand this pernicious and archaic protectionist law, an effort that thankfully failed thanks to some last minute interventions by a few members of the Texas congressional delegation.
That was back in May. Now, here we are four months later and the Jones Act has once again become the subject of national media coverage, this time mainly because President Trump keeps having to suspend it in order to help save lives after major hurricane events have devastated the U.S. and its territories. That sentence alone should make any observer wonder: After all,
Before we get into that, let’s review what the Jones Act actually does. Fellow Forbes contributor Ted Loch-Temziledes, in an excellent piece on the Act, sums it up thusly:
The act regulates all maritime commerce in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports. It requires that shipping of all goods transported between U.S. ports be carried out by ships under the U.S flag. The ships must be constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents. Furthermore, the steel used in any foreign repair work on a Jones Act vessel must be less than ten percent of the ship’s total weight. Waivers are only possible on a temporary basis, in cases involving national defense, or other emergencies, such as hurricanes.
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In news that is certain to upset adherents to the never-dying cult of Peak Oil, IHS Markit released a study on Sept. 25 indicating that, per their analysis of data from more than 440,000 oil wells in the Permian Basin, the basin still has somewhere between 60 and 70 billion barrels of producible oil to give up in coming years. That’s not exactly the “near-infinite resource” view of the Permian held by Allen Gilmer and his staff at DrillingInfo, but it certainly supports the notion that the basin will remain a very active area for oil and gas development for decades to come.
“The Permian Basin is America’s super basin in terms of its oil and gas production history, and for operators, it presents a significant variety of stacked targets that are profitable at today’s oil prices,” Prithiraj Chungkham, director of unconventional resources for IHS, said in the statement.
The IHS Markit study is the latest in a string of resource estimates in the past year that have produced a growing understanding of the true magnitude of the resource in place in the Permian. Last November, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) issued its own resource estimate that a single formation in the Permian, the Wolfcamp Shale, contains 20 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil, by far the largest such estimate ever issued for any single formation by the USGS. Most in the industry understand that this is actually a conservative resource estimate because USGS limits its resource assessments to reserves that are producible using current technology. Given that technology advances in the oil and gas industry every day, such estimates, while useful markers, are out of date before they are even released.
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Just a few days ago, I wrote a piece commenting on the rarity of an oil and gas operator ― in this case Cabot Oil & Gas ― aggressively pursuing litigation in court instead of taking the path of least resistance. Imagine my surprise ― maybe even delight ― when, just hours after that piece was published, I read the news that Energy Transfer Partners, the builder of the Dakota Access Pipeline, had filed suit in Federal District Court against Greenpeace, EarthFirst and others who organized and participated in the long protest action and subsequent efforts to damage that pipeline.
The complaint, according to the company’s press release, “alleges that this group of co-conspirators (the ‘Enterprise’) manufactured and disseminated materially false and misleading information about Energy Transfer and the Dakota Access Pipeline (‘DAPL’) for the purpose of fraudulently inducing donations, interfering with pipeline construction activities and damaging Energy Transfer’s critical business and financial relationships. The complaint also alleges that the Enterprise incited, funded and facilitated crimes and acts of terrorism to further these objectives. It further alleges claims that these actions violated federal and state racketeering statutes, defamation, and constituted defamation and tortious interference under North Dakota law.”
Robert Duval’s character in “True Grit” might look at that paragraph and call it “bold talk for a one-eyed fat man,” and no doubt proving these claims against well-financed conflict groups like Greenpeace and EarthFirst, which we can be sure will be very effective represented in court, will present a high bar. But we can also be sure that no corporation would pursue such controversial litigation unless its management and legal teams believed there was a strong opportunity for success. The real monetary costs and potential for reputational damage are too high to risk on a case with a low prospect for success.
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