Q2 was a turning point for US upstream operators: Fuel for Thought

The second quarter was a pivotal three months that saw rising crude prices and rig counts, well performance improvements and a brighter tone from US upstream operators who had weathered a tough downturn, and ominous crude prices in early 2016.

When crude prices fell back to $40/b from yearly highs over $50/b just as they were going through their quarterly earnings calls, US operators didn’t flinch from their production plans, Evercore ISI analyst Stephen Richardson said.

“If anything, the market was rewarding clarity on 2017…and telling us it still has confidence” in next year—at which point crude should be at least $50/b, Richardson said in an audio clip.

Jefferies analyst Jonathan Wolff went a step farther, characterizing upstream company managers on quarterly calls as “surprisingly, outspokenly, bullish on oil… markets, with most pointing to the supply impact of underinvestment.”

Even so, capital budget additions for the 25 producers Wolff covers were minor—about 4% on average for the 10 operators that hiked capex, while two cut budgets for the year. And lower costs prompted a number of his companies to increase their volume of expected well completions this year with no capex hikes.

About half Wolff’s companies plan to add a total of 20 rigs in the year’s back half, he said, including 11 rigs in the Permian Basin.

US producers added 44 oil rigs in July, the most in any month since April 2014, the International Energy Agency noted in its latest Oil Market Report earlier this month, and 32 more were added in the first three weeks of August.

Besides contracting a rig here and there and squeezing more wells into the drilling lineup, managers’ tone of voice and language suggested confidence and pent-up energy—a contrast to the grim air three months earlier when they were wary of fickle oil prices that were recovering from two months in the $30s/b.

Positive words and upbeat voices conveyed a palpable sense of hope, such as Anadarko CEO Al Walker stating he was “encouraged” that $60/b was “likely to emerge” next year. Or Halliburton CEO Dave Lesar noting that North American operators show a “spring in their step” not seen earlier this year.

Production growth was also widely discussed, as many operators said it was in their line of sight for 2017 while many enthusiastically raised output guidance for this year as well.

Concho CEO Tim Leach claimed he was “very, very pleased to be able to talk about…double-digit production growth” within cash flow for 2017.

Service providers also want in on the upswing

With all the improvements in well drilling and completions, oil companies continued to bring down the breakeven cost of oil plays. According to UBS’ William Featherston, the average oil price needed in Q2 for an  economic return at the wellhead, compiled for eight major plays, was $46/b—down $3 sequentially and sizeably under the $65/b level pre-downturn.

The second quarter also showed some divergence from companies that saw $50/b as the turning point to rev up drilling and those waiting for a sustained $55/b to $60/b. Pioneer Natural Resources CEO Scott Sheffield said he likes $50-$55/b.

“I’d rather oil stayed in [that] range and keep [oil services] costs in check,” Sheffield said.

But oil services companies made clear to Wall Street during their Q2 calls that the low prices of well services and equipment that industry has enjoyed during last year and a half may end soon.

Schlumberger and Halliburton, the world’s largest and second largest oil services providers, warned their upstream customers that lower costs represent an “unsustainable burden” for suppliers, in the words of Schlumberger CEO Paal Kibsgaard, and that the days of “financially unviable contracts” are numbered.

Some operators are already locking in lower costs on longer contracts with suppliers. Others said they have just begun discussions on the subject.

Aaron Gaydosik, Chief Financial Officer for Gulfport Energy, said his company has procured “terms of generally 12 to 14 months at some attractive rates.”

Costs generally should not be an issue for E&Ps until another 80-100 rigs are reactivated, Cowen analyst Charles Robertson said in an early-August note. “We expect cost inflation to remain muted well into 2017,” he said.

Anadarko CEO Al Walker also believes oil prices need to be about 20%-30% higher than today’s mid-$40s/b level for service cost inflation to kick in.

Source: http://blogs.platts.com/

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