Energy businesses are selling assets and took on $106bn in net debt in the year to March, writes Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
The world’s leading oil and gas companies are taking on debt and selling assets on an unprecedented scale to cover a shortfall in cash, calling into question the long-term viability of large parts of the industry.
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) said a review of 127 companies across the globe found that they had increased net debt by $106bn in the year to March, in order to cover the surging costs of machinery and exploration, while still paying generous dividends at the same time. They also sold off a net $73bn of assets.
This is a major departure from historical trends. Such a shortfall typically happens only in or just after recessions. For it to occur five years into an economic expansion points to a deep structural malaise.
The EIA said revenues from oil and gas sales have reached a plateau since 2011, stagnating at $568bn over the last year as oil hovers near $100 a barrel. Yet costs have continued to rise relentlessly. Companies have exhausted the low-hanging fruit and are being forced to explore fields in ever more difficult regions.
The EIA said the shortfall between cash earnings from operations and expenditure -- mostly CAPEX and dividends -- has widened from $18bn in 2010 to $110bn during the past three years. Companies appear to have been borrowing heavily both to keep dividends steady and to buy back their own shares, spending an average of $39bn on repurchases since 2011.
The agency, a branch of the US Energy Department, said the increase in debt is “not necessarily a negative indicator” and may make sense for some if interest rates are low. Cheap capital has been a key reason why US companies have been able to boost output of shale gas and oil at an explosive rate, helping to lift the US economy out of the Great Recession.
The latest data shows that “tight oil” production has jumped to 3.7m barrels a day (b/d) from half a million in 2009. The Bakken field in North Dakota alone pumped 1m b/d in May, equivalent to Libya’s historic levels of supply. Shale gas output has risen from three billion cubic feet to 35 billion in just seven years. The EIA said America will increase its lead as the world’s largest producer of oil and gas combined this year, far ahead of Russia or Saudi Arabia.
However, the administration warned in May that “continued declines in cash flow, particularly in the face of rising debt levels, could challenge future exploration and development”. It said that upstream costs of exploring and drilling have been surging, causing companies to raise long-term debt by 9pc in 2012, and 11pc last year.
Upstream costs rose by 12pc a year from 2000 to 2012 due to rising rig rates, deeper water depths, and the costs of seismic technology. This was disguised as China burst onto the world scene and powered crude prices to record highs. Major disruptions in Libya, Iraq, and parts of Africa have since prevented oil from falling much below $100, even though other commodities have been in the doldrums. But even flat prices for three years have exposed how vulnerable the whole oil and gas edifice is becoming.
The major companies are struggling to find viable reserves, forcing them take on ever more leverage to explore in marginal basins, often gambling that much higher prices in the future will come to the rescue. Global output of conventional oil peaked in 2005 despite huge investment.
Steven Kopits from Douglas-Westwood (NYSE: WHG - news) said the productivity of new capital spending has fallen by a factor of five since 2000. “The vast majority of public oil and gas companies require oil prices of over $100 to achieve positive free cash flow under current capex and dividend programmes. Nearly half of the industry needs more than $120,” he said.
Analysts are split over the giant Petrobras project off the coast of Brazil, described by Citigroup (NYSE: C - news) as the “single-most important source of new low-cost world oil supply.” The ultra-deepwater fields lie below layers of salt, making seismic imaging very hard. They will operate at extreme pressure at up to three thousand meters, 50pc deeper than BP’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Petrobras is committed to spending $102bn on development by 2018. It already has $112bn of debt. The company said its break-even cost on pre-salt drilling so far is $41 to $57 a barrel. Critics say some of the fields may in reality prove to be nearer $130. Petrobras’s share price has fallen by two-thirds since 2010.
The global oil and gas nexus is clearly over-extended and could face a severe crunch if oil prices slip towards $80. A growing number of experts say it would be wiser to shrink the industry to a profitable core, returning revenues from existing ventures to shareholders and putting some companies into partial “run-off” rather than risking fresh money on projects that may prove to be ruinous white elephants.
The International Energy Agency in Paris says global investment in fossil fuel supply rose from $400bn to $900bn during the boom from 2000 and 2008, doubling in real terms. It has since levelled off, reaching $950bn last year. The returns have been meagre. Not a single large oil project has come on stream at a break-even cost below $80 a barrel for almost three years.
A study by Carbon Tracker said companies are committing $1.1 trillion over the next decade to projects requiring prices above $95 to make money. Some of the Arctic and deepwater projects have a break-even cost near $120. “The oil majors like Shell (LSE: RDSB.L - news) are having to replace cheap legacy reserves with new barrels from much more difficult places,” said Mark Lewis from Kepler Cheuvreux.
The new worry is that many companies will be left with “stranded assets” as climate accords kick in. The IEA says companies have booked assets that can never be burned if there is a deal limit to C02 levels to 450 (PPM), a serious political risk for the industry. Estimates vary but Mr Lewis said this could reach $19 trillion for the oil nexus, and $28 trillion for all forms of fossil fuel.
For now the major oil companies are mostly pressing ahead with their plans. ExxonMobil began drilling in Russia’s Arctic ‘High North’ last week with its partner Rosneft, even though Rosneft is on the US sanctions list.
“Exxon must be doing a lot of soul-searching as they get drawn deeper into this,” said one oil veteran with intimate experience of Russia. “We don’t think they ever make any money in the Arctic. It is just too expensive and too difficult.”