Showing posts with label Chesapeake. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chesapeake. Show all posts

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Aubrey McClendon (1959 – 2016): A flawed titan?

On Saturday, March 5, a riverfront in USA’s Oklahoma City saw well wishers, former employees, friends and family of controversial energy sector entrepreneur Aubrey McClendon, gather to pay their respects, following his death in a car crash on March 2; a day after being indicted on bid-rigging charges following an antitrust investigation by the US Department of Justice.

In keeping with his swashbuckling life, the end, when it came, was just as dramatic. While a police investigation into the crash is still ongoing, reports said the Chevy Tahoe McClendon was driving slammed straight into a cement wall, despite the driver having had multiple opportunities to avoid the collision. It was also revealed that he was not wearing his seat-belt.  

That was the final act of a glittering, albeit controversial oil and gas industry titan. As the shale bonanza took off stateside, McClendon was one of the poster boys of rising US natural gas production, taking Chesapeake Energy – a company he co-founded in 1989 at the young age of 29 – to the second spot on the country’s top gas producers’ roster by volume.

But in 2013, he was ousted from Chesapeake following damaging revelations that he had personal stakes in wells owned by the company. An accompanying corporate governance crisis tarnished his reputation further.

Yet, McClendon’s penchant for lavish spending never subsided. His investments in property, restaurants and businesses are littered across Oklahoma City. Famously, in 2008, he brought the National Basketball Association's Supersonics franchise to Oklahoma City from Seattle, renaming them Oklahoma City Thunder.

Following the Chesapeake debacle, McClendon marked a return to the industry by setting up a new company – American Energy Partners. Being the wildest of wildcatters, he made bets, not all of them sound, worth billions of dollars buying land with potential for oil and gas drilling.

However, all was not well with the US Justice Department set to haul him to the courts. He was alleged to have put in place a scheme between two “large oil and gas companies” to not bid against each other for leases in northwest Oklahoma from December 2007 to March 2012, to keep the price of leasing drilling rights artificially low, the Department of Justice said a day before his sudden death.

The American antitrust law – Sherman Act – which McClendon was accused of violating carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and a $1 million fine. 

None of this mattered to the hundreds who gathered on Saturday at Oklahoma City's Boathouse District to pay their respects to McClendon, with a formal public memorial service due on Monday at a local community church.

For them, the state in general and the city in particular, McClendon was instrumental in reviving the regional economy. As for the US shale industry, his impact in the history books – the good, the bad, the ugly, the unproven and the controversial. However, in his untimely passing, it is McClendon’s ingenuity that ought to be remembered by most.

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© Gaurav Sharma 2016. Photo: A shale drilling site © Chesapeake Energy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Downward revisions of gas price assumptions

While oil markets have grabbed all the headlines in recent weeks, there is something afoot in the natural gas markets that’s telling. Several analysts and rating agencies have revised their short to medium term gas price forecasts downwards over the past six weeks.

Earlier this month, Fitch Ratings revised its base case for Henry Hub down to US$3/mcf from $4/mcf in 2015, while not losing sight of a long-term value of $4.50/mcf. The agency’s stress case for credit ratings purposes this year has been revised to $2.75/mcf from $3.25/mcf, and the long run price to $3.25/mcf from $3.50/mcf.

There is nothing to sensationalise here, we’re not slipping down to April 2012 levels and sub-$2 prices. Yet, there is little to be broadly upbeat about over the medium term for US producers given the current abundance of gas. Alex Griffiths, Managing Director at Fitch Ratings, says the agency has merely reacted to rebounding inventories as noted by the EIA and other sources.

“A warmer US winter, and continued strong growth in domestic shale gas supply, including ongoing efficiency gains in drilling are having a bearing. The drop in forward oil prices is also likely to have a dampening effect on US gas demand over the medium term, as lower oil prices suggest lower profits and reduced economic feasibility for at least some US based LNG projects still at the planning stages,” he adds.

In fact, natural gas abundance could stunt the growth of new nuclear build in the eyes of many contacts. At present, nuclear power share of the overall US market is just shy of 20%. Cheap gas means the level is likely to be severely tested over the coming years. Only two new nuclear plants are currently under construction, with the first not expected to come online before 2018 at the earliest.

Gas producers, unlike their oil counterparts, can at least take some solace now in exporting their proceeds of shale to Europe and Asia as Sabine Pass LNG export terminal kicks into gear in 2017. However, Fitch says while the European gas price is in a much better place than the US, it too is going through testing times.

Fitch uses UK’s National Balancing Point (NBP) gas price as proxy, which it has also revised down to $6/mcf in 2015 from $8/mcf to reflect downward movements in the market price since last year. Overall, the NBP has fallen nearly 20% since a year ago to around $7.50/mcf.

“We believe that due to seasonal factors and the downward impact of oil-linked gas contracts elsewhere in the market, which typically readjust price with a six or nine-month lag, it is appropriate to reflect a weaker market as our base assumption for the rest of the year. From 2016, the base case price deck for NBP sees a gradual improvement back to $8 in the long run,” Griffiths adds.

So should US producers continue to look elsewhere in order to get more bang for their invested bucks? Exporting to Europe and Asia seems to be the answer. Invariably though, as pointed out by opponents of US gas exports, this would lead to a rise in domestic gas prices.

US gas will continue to trade at some discount to European prices and at a considerable discount to Asian prices. As the Oilholic noted last year in a Forbes column, the Henry Hub is not relocating to Wales or Singapore any time soon! Even in a depressed gas market, disparities will persist.

That the European market is the most depressed of all shouldn’t be in any doubt. On February 3, Russia’s Gazprom, still Europe’s leading provider of natural gas (Ukraine-related sanctions or not), said it would reduce gas imports from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which it passes on to end clients, by 60% and 75% respectively, to compensate for weak demand.

Not only does it have heavy implications for both those countries, but Moody’s unsurprisingly views it as a credit negative for Intergas Central Asia (ICA, Baa3 positive), Kazakhstan's gas transmission company operating one of main Central Asian pipelines.

The agency says Gazprom’s move has the potential to trigger a 40% dip in ICA’s profits on an annualised basis. “Such revenue deterioration would weaken the credit metrics of ICA, which generates more than 50% of its revenue from the transportation of Asian gas under contract for Gazprom. It would also reduce the company's ability to generate cash, as well as its resilience to foreign currency risk associated with its predominantly US dollar-denominated debt,” it adds.

In summation, these are serious if not precarious times for the gas markets, and it’s not the just US players who ought to be worried.

On a closing note, here is the Oilholic’s recent chat for Forbes with US Department of Energy CIO Donald Adcock. Additionally, here is one’s take on how oil traders, trading houses and of course hedge funds are looking to play contango. As usual they’ll be winners, losers, sinners and pretty happy shippers.

That’s all for the moment folks! The Oilholic is off to gather fresh intel from Mexico City and Houston. Until next time, keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Photo: Offshore rig, USA  © Shell

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Brent’s ‘nine-month high’, Aubrey, BP & more

Oh boy, what one round of positive data, especially from China, does to the oil market! The Brent forward month futures contract for March is within touching distance of a US$120 per barrel price and the bulls are out in force. Last Friday’s intraday price of US$119.17 was a nine-month high; a Brent price level last seen in May 2012. The cause – and you have heard this combination before – was healthy economic data from China, coupled with Syrian turmoil and an Iranian nuclear stalemate.
 
The Oilholic has said so before, and will say it again – the last two factors touted by market commentators have been broadly neutral in terms of their impact for the last six months. It is the relatively good macroeconomic news from China which is principally behind the rally that nearly saw the Brent price breach the US$120 level.
 
The bull-chatter is already in full force. In a note to clients, Goldman Sachs advised them last week to maintain a net long position in the S&P GSCI Brent Crude Total Return Index. The investment bank believes this rally is "less driven by supply shocks and instead by improving demand."
 
"Global oil demand has surprised to the upside in recent months, consistent with the pick-up in economic activity," the bank adds in an investment note. Really? This soon – on one set of data? One thing is for sure, with many Asian markets shut for the Chinese New Year, at least trading volumes will be lighter this week.
 
Nonetheless, the ‘nine-month high’ also crept into the headline inflation debate in the UK where the CPI rate has been flat at 2.7% since October, but commentators reckon the oil spike may nudge it higher. Additionally, the Brent-WTI spread is seen widening yet again towards the US$25 per barrel mark. On a related note, Enterprise Product Partners said that capacity on its Seaway pipeline to the US Gulf of Mexico coast from Cushing, Oklahoma will remain limited until much later this year.
 
Moving away from pricing, news arrived end-January that the inimitable Aubrey McClendon will soon vacate the office of the CEO of Chesapeake Energy. It followed intense scrutiny over the last nine months about revelations, which surfaced in May, regarding his borrowings to finance personal stakes in company wells.
 
As McClendon announced his departure on January 29, the company’s board reiterated that it had found no evidence to date of improper conduct by the CEO. McClendon will continue in his post until a successor is found which should be before April 1st – the day he is set to retire. The announcement marks a sad and unspectacular exit for the great pioneer who co-founded and led Chesapeake Energy from its 1989 inception in Oklahoma City and has been a colourful character in the oil and gas business ever since.
 
Whatever the circumstances of his exit may be, let us not forget that before the so called ‘shale gale’ was blowing, it was McClendon and his ilk who first put their faith in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The rest, and US’ near self-sufficiency in gas supplies, is history.

Meanwhile, BP has been in the crude news for a number of reasons. First off, an additional US$34 billion in claims filed against BP by four US states earlier this month have provided yet another hurdle for the oil giant to overcome as it continues to address the aftermath of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
 
However, Fitch Ratings not believe that the new round of claims is a game changer. In fact the agency does not think that any final settlement is likely to be enough to interfere with BP's positive medium term credit trajectory. The latest claims come on top of the US$58 billion maximum liability calculated by Fitch. If realised, the cost of the spill could rise up to as much as US$92 billion.
 
The agency said the new claims should be put in the context of an asset sale programme that has raised US$38 billion. “This excludes an additional US$12 billion in cash to come from the sale of TNK-BP this year – upside in our analysis because we gave BP no benefit for the TNK-BP stake. BP had US$19 billion of cash on its balance sheet at 31 December 2012. That is after it has already paid US$38 billion in settlements or into escrow,” it added.
 
Away from the spill, the company announced that it had started production from new facilities at its Valhall field in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea on January 26 with an aim of producing up to 65,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day in the second half of 2013. Valhall's previous output averaged about 42,000 barrels per day (bpd), feeding crude into the Ekofisk oil stream.
 
Earlier this month, BP also said that both consortiums vying to link Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz gas field in the Caspian Sea, into Western European markets have an equal chance of success. BP operates the field which was developed in a consortium partnership with Statoil, Total, Azerbaijan’s Socar, LukAgip (an Eni, LUKoil joint venture) and others.
 
A decision, whether to pipe gas from the field into Austria via the proposed Nabucco (West) pipeline or into Italy through the rival Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) project, is expected to be made by mid-2013. Speaking in Vienna, Al Cook, head of BP's Azeri operations, said, “I genuinely believe both pipelines at the moment have an equal chance. There's certainly no clear-cut answer at the moment.”
 
BP is aiming for the first gas from Shah Deniz II to be delivered to existing customer Turkey in 2018. Early 2019 is the more likely date for the first Azeri gas to reach Western Europe via this major development often touted as one which would reduce European dependence on Russia for its energy supplies.
 
The Shah Deniz consortium owns equity options in both the pipeline projects and Cook did not rule out that both Nabucco (West) and TAP could be built in the long term. Specifically, BP's own equity options, which are part of the Shah Deniz stakes, are pegged at 20% in TAP and 14% in Nabucco. Cook said BP was not “actively seeking” to increase its stake in either project – a wise choice indeed.
 
On February 4, BP said its Q4 2012 net profit, adjusted for non-operating items, currency and accounting effects, fell to US$3.98 billion from US$4.98 billion recorded over the corresponding quarter last year. Moving away from BP, Royal Dutch Shell posted a 6% dip in 2012 profits to US$27 billion on the back of weak oil and gas prices and lower exploration and production (E&P) margins.
 
The Anglo-Dutch oil major reported Q4 earnings of US$7.3 billion, a rise of 13%. However, on an adjusted current cost of supply basis and one-off asset sales, the profit came in at US$5.58 billion. In particular, Shell’s E&P business saw profits dip 14% to US$4.4 billion, notwithstanding an actual 3% increase in oil and gas production levels. However, the company did record stronger refining margins.
 
Ironically, while acknowledging stronger refining margins, Shell confirmed its decision to close most of its Harburg refinery units in Hamburg, Germany. The permanent shutdown of much of its 100,000 bpd refinery is expected next month in line with completing a deal made with Swedish refiner Nynas in 2011.
 
Finally, in a typical Italian muddle, several oil executives in the country are under investigation following a probe into alleged bribery offences related to the awarding of oil services contracts to Saipem in Algeria. Eni has a 43% stake in Saipem which is Europe’s biggest oil services provider. While the company itself denied wrongdoing, the probe was widened last Friday to include Eni CEO Paolo Scaroni.
 
The CEO’s home and office were searched as part of the probe. However, Eni is standing by their man and said it will cooperate fully with the prosecutor’s office in Milan. So far, Pietro Franco Tali (the CEO of Saipem) and Eni’s Chief Financial Officer Alessandro Bernini (who was Saipem’s CFO until 2008) have been the most high profile executives to step down in wake of the probe. Watch this crude space! That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!
 
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© Gaurav Sharma 2013. Photo 1: Asian oil rig © Cairn Energy. Photo 2: Gas extraction site © Chesapeake Energy.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

BP fishes, ETP swoops & Chesapeake stumbles

Three corporate stories have caught the Oilholic’s eye over the past fortnight and all are worth talking about for very different reasons. With things improving Stateside and memories of a Russian misadventure fading, oil major BP announced on Tuesday that it had inked two production sharing agreements and aims to begin new deepwater exploration in Atlantic waters off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago. The company is already the Caribbean island nation’s largest oil & gas producer with average production for 2011 coming in the region of 408,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day.
Having been awarded blocks 23(a) and TTDAA14 in the 2010-2011 competitive bid rounds last summer, BP finds itself fishing for crude and gassy stuff in the two blocks which are 2,600 sq km and 1,000 sq km in area respectively. Local sources see the company as a ‘good corporate citizen’ and that ought to be comforting for BP in its march to rebuild trust under Bob Dudley.

While BP’s fishing, Energy Transfer Partners LP (ETP) is smiling having won plaudits around the crude world for its US$5.3 billion acquisition of Sunoco on April 30. A fortnight hence, market commentators are still raving on about the move especially as ETP’s swoop for Sunoco follows on from a clever buyout of Southern Union for US$5.7 billion. These acquisitions make ETP the USA’s second-biggest owner of pipeline assets behind Kinder Morgan whose merger with El Paso is imminent.

Most importantly, the Oilholic believes a swoop for Sunoco diversifies ETP’s pipeline portfolio adding around 9,700 km of oil and refined products pipelines to its existing network of 28,160 km of natural gas and natural gas liquids pipelines. With the move, oil revenues will account for over a quarter of its income. A Moody’s report prior to announcement of the deal suggested that together with Enterprise Production Partners, ONEOK Partners and Williams Partners, ETP was currently in a good place and among those best positioned for organic growth.

Growing production of oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids and higher margins are driving increased earnings and cash flow for midstream companies, especially those with existing gathering and processing or pipeline infrastructure near booming shale plays says the agency. While ETP’s smiling, the situation at Chesapeake Energy is anything but smiles. Under Aubrey McClendon, who co-founded the firm in 1989 in Oklahoma, it grew from strength to strength becoming the USA’s second largest natural gas producer and a company synonymous with the country’s shale gas bonanza. However, in a troubling economic climate with the price of natural gas plummeting to historic lows, Chesapeake has endured terrible headlines many of which were self-triggered.

Two weeks ago activist shareholders forced McClendon’s hand by making him relinquish the post of Chairman which he held along with that of Chief Executive over an arrangement which allows him to buy a 2.5% stake in all new wells drilled by Chesapeake. The arrangement itself will also be negotiated by 2014. The Oilholic finds the way McClendon has been treated to be daft for a number of reasons.

The arrangement has been in place since 1993 when the firm went public so neither the company’s Board nor its shareholders can claim they did not know. Two decades ago Chesapeake drilled around 20 wells per annum on average but by 2011 the average had risen to well above 1500 wells. That McClendon kept putting his money where his mouth is for so long is itself astonishing which is what the attention should focus on rather than on the man himself.

In later years this was largely achieved by borrowing at a personal level to the tune of US$850 million; Reuters reckons the figure is more in the region of US$1.1 billion. However, sections of the US media are currently busy sensationalising the Oklahoma man’s tussles within the company and as if this arrangement has emerged out of the blue.

Furthermore, the macroclimate and falling gas prices are now forcing the energy company’s hand with analysts at Fitch Ratings noting that it faces a funding shortfall of US$10 billion this year. In response, Chesapeake says it plans to sell US$9.0 billion to US$11.5 billion in assets this year. Word from Houston is that the sales of its Permian Basin property in West Texas and Mississippi Lime joint venture are a given by September. Some analysts believe asset sales may cap the figure of US$14 billion; though the view is not unanimous.

While this would help with liquidity issues, a sell-off of those assets currently producing oil & gas would most certainly reduce Chesapeake’s cash flow needed to meet requirements of its existing US$4 billion corporate credit facility secured earlier this week from Goldman Sachs and Jeffries Group. It matures in December 2017, with an interest rate of around 8.5% and can be repaid at any time over 2012 without penalty at par value.

As expected, Chesapeake has suffered a ratings downgrade; Standard & Poor's lowered its credit rating to "BB-" from "BB" citing corporate governance matters and a widening gap between capex and operating cash flow as the primary reasons. There is clear evidence of hedge funds short-selling Chesapeake’s shares.

Industry veteran and founder of BP Capital Partners – T. Boone Pickens – launched a strange albeit very vocal defence of McClendon on CNBC’s US Squawk Box on Wednesday which made yours truly smile. Pickens admitted that he had sold his position on Chesapeake – not because of what is going on but rather that he was very concerned about natural gas prices full stop.

“We got out of natural gas stocks and Chesapeake was one of them. We’re not long on Chesapeake now. Aubrey (McClendon) is a great Oklahoman and Chesapeake is a great company for Oklahoma City generating jobs and investment. Aubrey is a visionary…don’t bet against him…They’ll pull it off. You bet against Aubrey and you’ll scratch your loser’s ass,” said the industry veteran.

You have got to hand it to Pickens! If he's got something to say, there is no minding of the "Ps" and "Qs" – so what if its live television! As a former CNBC employee, the Oilholic wholeheartedly enjoyed Pickens’ soundbite and agrees that Chesapeake should make it out of this mess! However, bad headlines won’t go away anytime soon and its partly their own fault. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo 1: Pipeline warning sign, Fairfax, Virginia, USA © O. Louis Mazzatenta/National Geographic. Photo 2: Chesapeake well drilling site © Chesapeake Energy.

Monday, July 18, 2011

ConocoPhillips’ move is a sign of crude times

US major ConocoPhillips' announcement last Friday that it will be pursuing the separation of its exploration and production (E&P) and refining and marketing (R&M) businesses into two separate publicly traded corporations via a tax-free spin-off R&M to COP shareholders does not surprise the Oilholic. 

Rather, it is a sign of crude times. Oil majors are increasing turning their focus to the high risk, high reward E&P side of things rather than the R&M business where margins albeit recovering at the moment, continue to be abysmal. Most oil majors  are divesting their refinery assets, and even BP would have done so, regardless of the Macondo tragedy forcing its hand towards divestment. 

ConocoPhillips’ decision should not be interpreted as a move away from R&M – nothing in the oil business is either that simple or linear. However, it certainly tells us where its priorities currently lie and how it feels the integrated model is not the best way forward. This is in line with industry trends as the Oilholic noted last November. 

Meanwhile, following the announcement, ratings agency Moody's says it may review ConocoPhillips' ratings for possible downgrade with approximately US$19.6 billion of rated debt being affected. This includes A1 senior unsecured and other long-term debt ratings of the parent company and its rated subsidiaries. 

Tom Coleman, Moody's Senior Vice-President notes that the distribution to shareholders of the large R&M business could weaken the credit profile of ConocoPhillips and result in a downgrade of its A1 rating. 

"Our review will focus on the company's capital structure following the spin-off, including the potential for debt reduction by ConocoPhillips, along with its financial policies and growth objectives going forward as a stand-alone E&P company," he concludes. 

The wider market is waiting to get a clearer understanding of the oil major’s plans for debt reduction, capital structure and financial policies as an independent E&P. Continuing with corporate deals, BHP Billiton made a strategic swoop for Petrohawk Energy. The cash acquisition, also announced last Friday, to the tune of US$12.1 billion, will give it access to shale oil and gas assets across Texas and Louisiana. BHP’s latest move follows its earlier decision to buy Chesapeake Energy's Arkansas-based gas business for US$4.75 billion. 

Meanwhile, figures released by Brazil’s Petrobras for the month of June indicate that the company’s domestic production rose 3.5% on an annualised basis. The results were boosted by the resumption of production on platforms that had been undergoing scheduled maintenance in the Campos Basin, and startup of a new well connected to platform Jubarte field's P-57 in the Esp√≠rito Santo section of the Campos Basin. The Extended Well Test (EWT) in the Campos Basin's Aruan√£ field also started up in late June.

However, its international output was down 5.6% on an annualised basis due to operating issues and tax payments in Akpo, Nigeria. Petrobras' average oil and natural gas production (both domestic and overseas) amounted to 2,641,508 barrels of oil equivalent per day (boed), 2.13% up on the total figure for May 2011. 

Finally, European woes are weighing on the crude markets. With the NYMEX August crude futures contract due to expire on Wednesday, intraday trading at one point, 1045 GMT to be precise, saw it down 0.31% or 33 cents at US$96.91 a barrel. Concurrently, the September ICE Brent futures contract was down 0.6%, 74 cents at US$116.44 a barrel. 

© Gaurav Sharma 2011. Photo 1: COP Refinery & Oil Platform collage © ConocoPhillips

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