Jim Mulva, chief executive of ConocoPhillips, has been in a hurry to establish his legacy. In the beginning, it was going to be as the head of one of the world’s biggest international oil and gas companies. And he got there, boosting Conoco into 5th place, in terms of production.
But then the economic downturn hit, and the weaknesses in his grow-through-acquisition strategy were exposed. It was no longer enough to be big, and Conoco was forced to slash capital spending, lay off staff and sell billions of dollars in assets.
The technological advances in the oil and gas patch just keep coming. While everyone has been scrambling to catch up with the shale gas revolution, the industry has been working on another potentially significant breakthrough in gas. This one is in producing gas that has long been stranded offshore in areas too far or too small to warrant a pipeline to shore.
Royal Dutch Shell recently announced it would be the first producer to invest in a multibillion dollar project to capture this gas. The project will be a floating liquified natural gas terminal – known as a FLNG terminal in the industry – that makes it economic to get at such gas fields. No pipelines need to be built. Shell just produces the gas until it runs out and then moves along to the next field.
The big question for months has been what would happen if there was a significant spill in the deepwater outside the Gulf of Mexico. Following BP’s Macondo disaster, the industry worked together to build two spill response systems for this area. But nobody said what would happen if a deepwater disaster unfolded in the waters offshore Ghana or Brazil.
Now the industry has gathered together to address that question. Nine of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies – BG Group, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Petrobras, Shell, Statoil and Total have launched the Subsea Well Response Project (SWRP), an initiative designed to enhance the industry’s capability to respond to subsea well control incidents.
There is no doubt it is hard to feel sorry for Big Oil. It pulls in billions of dollars in profits whenever oil prices go up, and yet higher oil prices result in higher petrol prices for the public.
So whenever these companies are doing well, the public is doing worse. And that, inevitably, leads to talk about punitive taxes (or at least a loss of tax breaks) for the oil industry.
That time has come once again. A few weeks ago, the world’s biggest oil companies reported massive profits just as petrol moved up and beyond, in some cases, $4 a gallon. That is a big deal in the US, where people often commute long distances to work, particularly in sprawling cities like Houston, Chicago, Los Angelos, and other highly populated areas. And it is particularly important now when the economy has not fully recovered, unemployment remains high and the public at large is still having economic difficulties.
President Barack Obama is calling on oil companies to increase production in the US, accusing them of sitting on tens of millions of unused and unexplored acres of leases on public land waiting to be tapped. But this must be put in context.
It would be one thing to make this accusation if companies were simply able to lease acreage and set to work exploring, drilling and producing. But the reality is not so. Even before the Macondo accident in the Gulf of Mexico, regulators have long forced oil and gas companies to go through a variety of hoops before producing on a lease. In some cases, they did approve permits without proper scrutiny, but there were many others, such as in Wyoming, where they forced the industry to go above and beyond before granting permission to drill.
The oil and gas industry has been afraid there might be repercussions from the recent investigation that found Macondo’s blowout preventer failed to close because a section of drill pipe had buckled during the accident and blocked efforts to seal it off.
Gary Luquette, Chevron’s president for North America exploration and production, said the industry would learn from the report. But he hopes it will not lead regulators to stop the permitting process just when companies have started to see progress. He explained:
The best way to deal with a blowout is never to have one. In this case, the pipe was blown up the hole because of a loss of control situation. If you have complete loss of control, you can’t imagine a BOP that can be designed for that.
George Osborne, the UK chancellor, has just announced his tax measures for the next year, and the biggest surprise came with a cut to fuel duty, to be funded by extra charges on North Sea oil producers if the oil price remains over a certain price somewhere around $75 a barrel. The supplementary charge for such companies will now go from 20 per cent to 32 per cent.
So the North Sea’s big oil and gas producers must be suffering, right? Well, no.
For the big companies this means little – the North Sea is a declining asset, which will not mean much in the long term, and the £2bn raised altogether from this tax is nothing compared to their incomes (for comparison, Shell’s pre-tax net income last year was $35.3bn, about £21.7bn). That’s why their share price hasn’t budged in reaction.
Image by Shell
Shell said last week that this year was the “year of delivery” in its three year plan to boost profits and growth.
It took a big step towards that on Wednesday when it announced that gas was now flowing into the Pearl gas-to-liquid plant in Qatar. The project is expected to add nealry 8 per cent to the company’s worldwide gas production, and is the principal source of growth for next year. The company reiterated its target to reach full production in 2012.
Investors, however, are not especially impressed. Shell’s shares rose slightly in morning trading in a rising market, but lagged those of its main rival, BP. In part that is because the news is no surprise – the company’s CEO indicated last week that the project was on track.
But it is also an indication that the company has a lot more targets ahead of it which it needs to hit to achieve its ambitious plans.
Ken Salazar, the US interior secretary, and Michael Bromwich, director of the US oceans regulator, held a press conference amid great fanfare on Monday to unveil that they had approved a plan by Shell for deepwater oil and gas exploration.
The approval was trumpeted as the first plan approved since the Macondo disaster last April, and one that provided a template for the industry to follow to get their own plans approved.
But the approval does not mean Shell can drill. Its plan calls for drilling three exploratory wells in about 3,000 feet of water, 130 miles offshore Louisiana. To actually drill, Shell must still get permits for each well. And, despite the fanfare, nobody has received a permit to drill a new deepwater well in the Gulf of Mexico since BP’s accident.
Shell has begun to ship liquid natural gas cargoes into Tokyo to help meet their energy demands in the aftermath of the earthquake and subsequent nuclear crisis. The first batch into the Tokyo Bay area was agreed on Monday night, and significantly for global LNG prices, it had originally been intended for elsewhere.
This was confirmed by the CEO Peter Voser at Shell’s strategy day, where unsurprisingly, much of the focus from journalists was on recent events in Japan and the Middle East. As far as Japan’s effect on gas prices, Simon Henry, the company’s chief financial officer, had this to say:
Last night, we agreed the first cargo into the Tokyo Bay area. We will not be taking advantage of the short term pricing implications of that.
More towards the medium term, after the last earthquake in Japan, the country spent two years bringing the nuclear plants back online, which did support the LNG markets.