Thursday, February 25, 2010

Deloitte’s Take on UK Upstream Independents

A report into activities of UK upstream independent companies published by consulting firm Deloitte this morning makes-up for quite interesting reading. Its ranking of 25 leading independents has the usual suspects – Tullow Oil and Cairn Energy atop, as first and second. However, movements elsewhere in the table narrate a story of their own.

Desire Petroleum Plc, Borders & Southern Petroleum Plc and Rockhopper Exploration Plc rose in market value rankings for London-listed independent production companies as they hold exploration rights near the Falkland Islands. According to the report, Desire, which started exploratory drilling in Falkland Island Waters for the first time since 1998, rose by 10 places to 14th place, Borders & Southern rose 17 places to break into the top 25 at 15th and Rockhopper Exploration Plc rose 23 places to 26 – just outside the top 25.

Desire’s Liz prospection field has estimated resources of between 40 million and 800 million barrels, according to published reports. Meanwhile, Falkland Oil and Gas Plc, another operator, has estimated resources of between 380 million and 2.9 billion barrels at its Tora prospection, according to its Q4 documents.

Argentina and UK went to war over the Falkland Islands in 1982 after the former invaded. UK forces wrested back control of the islands, held by it since 1833, after a week long war that killed 649 Argentine and 255 British service personnel. The Islands have always be a bone of contention between the two countries. The prospect of oil in the region has renewed diplomatic spats with the Argentines complaining to the UN and launching fresh claims of sovereignty.

UK has rejected the claims on the basis of the right of self-government of the people of the Islands "underpinned by the principle of self-determination as set out in the UN charter". Market commentators feel the fresh round of diplomatic salvos are as much about oil as they are about politics. A widely held belief that fresh conflict was highly unlikely could precipitate in independent operators in the region being taken over by oil majors.

Ian Sperling-Tyler, co-head of oil and gas corporate finance at Deloitte, raised some very important points while doing his press rounds. In separate interviews with Bloomberg and CNBC Europe, he opined that the wider market would have to wait and see what effect political risk will have on activity levels in the Falklands. However, he thinks it is highly plausible that operators in the Falklands were not big enough to monetise those assets on their own.

Hence, they could very well be acquired by a bigger company. And well the independents are growing bigger by the month too. The top two in the league table - Tullow Oil, which is developing reserves in Uganda, and Cairn Energy, which focuses on India, accounted for 60% of the market capitalisation of the top 25 companies for 2009, the report shows (click on image).

As for the diplomatic row between the two nations; it’s nothing more than a bit of argy-bargy with an oily dimension and is highly likely to stay there. Meanwhile, the BBC reports that Spanish oil giant Repsol might be about to join the exploration party from the Argentinean side.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Table Scan © Deloitte LLP UK

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Crude Price Seen Factoring In Survey Data

Crude oil futures rose over 3% on average in week over week terms and for a change that is not chiefly down to a stand-alone argument that black gold is higher because the commodity is cheaper in U.S. Dollar terms.

To be fair, the 5-day cycle I examine began with the usual market conjecture over the position of the dollar. However, survey evidence indicates that manufacturing activity is picking-up. This morning, the Philadelphia Federal Reserve said its index of manufacturing activity rose to 17.6 in February from 15.2 in January; a sixth consecutive monthly rise. Across the pond, UK’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) reported its biggest monthly increase in auto production in year over year terms since May 1976. It said 101,190 cars were produced in January, up from 85,316 in December.

Trawling back the economic calendar, manufacturing purchasing managers’ indices (PMI) on either side of the pond are positive, especially the Eurozone PMI released on February 1st. It came in at 52.4 for January, versus 51.6 at the end of 2009; the highest level in two years. Admittedly, difference between the zone’s healthiest and weakest economies is widening, but overall picture is improving. Furthermore, Indian and Chinese economic activity remains buoyant. Yet, market commentators correctly opine that global economy is not quite out of the woods yet. From a British standpoint, Kate Barker, a member of the Bank of England’s rate setting monetary policy committee, summed up the City of London’s fears best in an interview with the Belfast Newsletter.

“Do I think that it’s possible we (in the UK) will have another quarter of negative production at some point? I do think it’s possible and I think the recovery will be quite hesitant but I wouldn’t necessarily describe that as a double dip,” Baker said.

That argument could be used for a number of OECD economies which have emerged from the recession over the last two quarters. Not to mention that Spain is yet to come out of a recession. David Moore, Chief Commodities Strategist at Commonwealth Bank of Australia, sees a gradual rebound in economic activity as the recovery takes hold which would then reflect in crude oil consumption patterns supporting crude prices to the upside.

Energy markets have always had to contend with volatility and that will not change. As Greece’s debt weighs on the Euro, the Dollar is seen strengthening which would in turn have a bearing upon crude prices. Moore opines that had the Dollar not strengthened against the Euro, crude oil price seen this week would have been even higher than current levels.

U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and American Petroleum Institute (API) data did not really temper this morning’s climb. A few hours ago, the EIA said U.S. crude inventories rose by 3.1 million barrels over the week ending February 12, while the API said late on Wednesday that crude supplies declined by 63,000 barrels last week. However, it also reported that gasoline stocks rose by 1.4 million barrels over the corresponding period.

Following the EIA data, NYMEX crude contract for March settlement stood at $78.15 up 84 cents or 1.09% at 17:00 GMT, trading in the circa of 76.32 to 78.71. Across the pond, London Brent Crude’s April settlement contract stood at $76.03 up 66 cents or 0.87% trading in the circa of $75.27 to $77.65. The Dollar’s strength remains a factor, but there are others to consider too.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo Courtesy © BP Plc

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Et tu Branson? Then let's debate “Peak Oil”

One must confess that until recently all talk of “Peak Oil” theories was confined to academics, geologists, the odd government white paper or publicity literature of environmental groups worried about a perceived global addiction to oil. But these days “Peak Oil” talk is all the rage. In December, IEA belatedly joined the debate. North Sea drillers voiced their supply concerns, difficulties and increasing expenses faced while prospecting for and extracting oil in the area. The Rig building lobby has given its take too.

Now their ranks have been joined by the inimitable Sir Richard Branson. Furthermore, the Virgin Group boss has brought some friends along too. The group, rather seriously titled as UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security (ITPOES), includes Arup (Engineering), Foster and Partners (Architects), Scottish and Southern Energy, Solar Century and Stagecoach (a British transport firm) along with Virgin Group.

Launching ITPOES’ second report on the subject at the Royal Society in London on February 10, Sir Richard said, “If somebody had been able to warn the world five years before the credit crunch, the credit crunch could have been avoided. The same thing could be said for the oil crunch. We suggest there should be a workforce for government and industry to work together on addressing this problem.”

He wants the world in general and UK in particular to move from coal and oil to gas and nuclear. “We need to move our cars from oil-consuming cars to electric cars and clean-fuel cars. The government should say, 'For 2020 there should be no more oil cars running in this country and for 2015 no new cars can be sold using oil,' just to force people to move over to clean energy,” he added.

Away from the Branson babble, the group believes a “Peak Oil” scenario may potentially occur as early as 2015, with oil production levels at 95 million barrels per day. According to published statistics, including both OPEC and non-OPEC output, 85 million barrels per day were produced in 2008.

The British government issued a swift response. A spokesperson for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) denied that it is ignoring the issue but said it was unsure as to when Peak Oil may occur and was taking action to mitigate those risks.

In more ways than one, I can feel Branson’s pain. The assembled party, including all the scribes, did not hear how much worry volatile oil prices were probably causing Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Trains. Since they are not publicly listed companies it is rather hard to get an accurate picture. However, we get the idea from their industry peers.

Putting a cynical hat on, it could be dismissed as yet another publicity stunt by the Virgin boss. However, one statement of his, was quite on the spot and got nods of approvals from market commentators. Branson suggested that the credit crisis stemmed a trend of rising oil prices and delayed the inevitable spike. Before the crisis took hold, crude oil price rose spectacularly to $147 per barrel in July 2008. At one point, with the fledgling U.S. Dollar, there was talk of prices rising as high as $200 per barrel. Then the credit crisis took hold and along with a recession driven drop in demand the crude price plummeted.

Subsequently, it is also worth noting that 2009 ended with just the sort of worries about the crude oil price spikes that we saw in 2008. I suspect 2010 will end in a similar fashion. So Branson and his ITPOES have a point. Those who have debated “Peak Oil” without receiving any concrete publicity or tangible answers will now hope that the subject becomes mainstream. It is a long journey and the Virgin boss would be a rather interesting companion.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo Courtesy © Virgin Atlantic

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Oil Giants' Crude Quarter has a Common Theme

The last quarter was very ‘crude’ for the oil industry’s books. Fourth quarter results of three oil majors – namely Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil make-up for some interesting reading with one common theme. Beginning with Exxon Mobil, the American oil behemoth reported on February 1st, 2010 that its fourth quarter profit dipped 23%. The decline meant it made a net profit of $6.05 billion over Q4 2009, compared to a $7.82 billion profit noted over the corresponding period last year. For the whole of 2009, Exxon's profit stood at $19.3 billion, less than half of what it made in 2008, and the lowest in seven years.

Then on February 2nd, BP said its Q4 2009 profits were up 33% to $3.45 billion. However, its annual profit was down 45% with the replacement cost profit at $13.96 billion compared to $25.59 billion in 2008. Two days later, on February 4th, Royal Dutch Shell’s profits for Q4 2009 came in at $1.2 billion, down by a whopping 75% from the $4.8 billion the Anglo-Dutch oil giant made over the corresponding quarter last year.

For the whole of 2009, Shell made a dwarfed $9.8 billion in profits, compared to $31.4 billion it made in profits over 2008. All three oil majors found common ground in suggesting that a global slump in demand courtesy of the economic climate and a dip in oil prices were to be blamed for their relatively poor set(s) of quarterly results. All three, in addition to many of their industry peers, added that the outlook for 2010 was uncertain.

In the midst of all this, OPEC secretary general Abdalla Salem El-Badri told the BBC that its members’ compliance with set production targets fell to 55-56% in January compared to 80% noted over the corresponding month last year. He described the development as "worrying".

El-Badri further said, "The risk is you see a lot of oil in the market and no one is buying it. Then the price will come down." At its last meeting in Angola on December 22nd (2009), OPEC held output at 24.84 million barrels per day.

OPEC and oil companies seem to bring up the word “uncertain” with some degree of conviction these days, more so because forecasting consumption patterns is proving to be mighty hard. Chinese and Indian consumption patterns and sluggish recovery in the West complicates drawing an overall global picture even further.

As for the prevailing price of black gold, NYMEX crude contract for March settlement was up 79 cents, or 1.10% trading at $72.67 a barrel and in the circa of $71.32 to $73.04 per barrel at 15:04 GMT. The corresponding Brent crude contract was up 87 cents, or 1.27 %, to $69.98 a barrel, trading in the circa of $69.61 to $71.30 in London. Overall, it’s still a far cry from a $147 per barrel price of July 2008. Many wonder for how long, but for very different reasons.

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo Courtesy © Cairn Energy Plc