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Permian producers prepared for dip in oil prices to last into 2019

Mindful of the lessons learned during the 2014-2016 oil and gas price collapse, large independent producers in the Permian Basin are shielded from the current U.S. oil price slide, thanks to conservative budgeting, new access to Brent crude pricing at the Houston Ship Channel and greater efficiency.

The price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil bounced back above $60 per barrel on the morning of Nov. 12, a slight improvement over the end of the previous week but still well below the $76.40/bbl reached in early October. If prices remain near $60/bbl, that will be more than enough for most producers to see healthy returns, as many have budgeted for prices at $50/bbl or below. Even though prices spiked more than $20/bbl above anticipated levels for several months, Permian producers largely made only slight increases to budgets as they looked to the long term.

"The industry has been conservative in oil price assumptions," Williams Capital Group LP analyst Gabriele Sorbara said. "I would say a majority of 2018/2019 budgets are contemplated on $50-$60/bbl WTI."

EOG Resources Inc., one of the largest producers in the region, assembled a capital budget for 2018 assuming oil prices at $40/bbl and gas prices at $2.50/Mcf, and the company intends to take a similar approach in 2019.

"We're not going to increase capital at the expense of efficiencies and returns. We will develop our assets and spend capital at a pace that will optimize our learning curve and allow sustainable improvement to our well productivity and cost structure," EOG CEO William Thomas said. "Any production growth is strictly the result of disciplined capital allocation to high-return assets. … We are continuously resetting the company to deliver strong returns, even in a low to moderate oil price environment."

When capital budgets for 2018 were assembled, most Permian producers assumed that WTI would hover around the $50/bbl level for much of the year. Even though they recognized far more revenue during the second and third quarters than initially anticipated, they seem content to stay the course at similar levels for 2019.

"What matters for companies is the long-term expectation," said Raymond James & Associates analyst Pavel Molchanov, who anticipates that most companies will continue to build budgets based on prices near $50/bbl. "The futures pricing for 2019 is pretty close to what it was a year ago."

Unlike the situation facing Permian producers during much of the price collapse, many independents have a new advantage, in spite of pipeline constraints: exports to Europe and Asia through the Houston Ship Channel. The exposure to offshore markets and Brent crude prices has allowed them to increase their revenues, as Brent crude was trading at more than $71/bbl on Nov. 12.

Pioneer Natural Resources Co. CEO Timothy Dove said during the third-quarter earnings call that his company would stick to its $3.4 billion budget for 2018 and is likely to take a similar course in 2019. But Dove said Pioneer is now able to avoid the consequences of a WTI price drop due to large amounts of its Permian crude being exported.

"We are now essentially a Brent-priced company if you talk about our oil sales," he said.

Another lesson learned from the price collapse was a continued push for efficiency, with producers using new technologies and methods to cut costs while increasing production. During Anadarko Petroleum Corp.'s third-quarter earnings call, executives said the company's more efficient operations would allow it to recognize "double-digit" production growth while maintaining a budget anticipating $50/bbl prices.

Apache Corp., which is increasing its Permian operations with the development of the Alpine High play, said it would operate in 2019 with a capital budget of $3 billion, lower than in 2018. "If changes in expected cash flow dictate, we have the flexibility to reduce our activity levels accordingly," CEO John Christmann said. The move by Apache and other producers to follow long-term price expectations and not become overly exuberant over higher prices earlier this year may have allowed companies to hold steady heading into 2019.

"Capital spending should be either stable from what it is this year or modestly higher, but no one should expect cuts in capital spending from recent levels because this year's capital programs always lagged behind the uplift we saw in prices we saw in the summer months," Molchanov said.