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Argentina's financial wobbles keep juniors out of Vaca Muerta

Buenos Aires — Vaca Muerta, the largest shale play in Argentina, needs more junior oil companies to accelerate oil and natural gas production but a financial crisis is keeping them on the sidelines, analysts and executives said.

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The play, the first to come into development outside of North America, has attracted majors like Chevron, Equinor and Shell, along with local leaders including state-backed YPF and Tecpetrol.

But to really ramp up production, more juniors are needed, said Gaston Remy, who runs Mexico-based Vista Oil & Gas in Argentina, one of the few smaller companies in the play.

"For Vaca Muerta to be truly transcendent, there have to be 10, 15, 20 companies like us," he said.

Vista is starting to develop blocks in the southwestern play's oil window with the aim of increasing production from very little today to 65,000-70,000 b/d in three years, much of which will be exportable given that the country is currently meeting all of its demand.

"If there were 10 projects like this, we could be producing 500,000 b/d for export," Remy said. "It is totally feasible to do 10 projects like this."

FINANCIAL CHALLENGES

The challenge to do this is to attract the investment, and that is where Argentina is struggling.

The country fell into a financial crisis in 2018, which is pushing some companies to losses and keeping others on the sidelines, even though a decline in the breakeven cost to $35-$40/b from $65/b over the past few years has boosted the profit potential in Vaca Muerta.

Argentinian junior Medanito has been selling assets in the play to restructure some $80 million in debts. Texas-based junior Retamco Operating lost its license in a gas block in Vaca Muerta after failing to find a partner to advance toward the development phase.

Another deterrent is contractual insecurity, which flared this year after a change in the interpretation of a unconventional gas subsidies program cost two of the biggest developers of the play millions of dollars in losses and hampered the investment plans for another eight projects.

One of the companies is Argentina-based Tecpetrol, which is taking legal action in response to the losses.

"We need rules that are sustained over time," Tecpetrol CEO Carlos Ormachea said.

He said another need is economic stability so companies can raise financing of billions of dollars for each project in the play. Tecpetrol invested $2 billion in 18 months to increase shale gas production to 15 million cu m/d from virtually zero in one block.

"Argentina needs access to a size of credit that makes these project possible," he said. "Otherwise we are just talking about potential when what is important is that this becomes a reality."

Despite the setbacks from the change in gas subsidies, which has reduced the amount of production eligible to receive an above-market price, Ormachea said, there is a chance for companies to get a foothold in Vaca Muerta for future growth.

"You have to be prepared for these windows of opportunity," he said.

POLITICAL UNCERTAINTY

With a presidential election in October, it may be cheaper to enter this year than next.

But Daniel Gerold, head of G&G Energy Consultants in Buenos Aires, warned that it may not be easy for companies to raise the financing to take advantage.

Vaca Muerta, he said, "competes with the US" for financing, and that means Argentina must make it easier, cheaper and more stable to operate in the country.

He said the authorities can do this by reducing taxes, making it easier to enter and exit concessions, and encouraging exports. Other incentives could be for companies to offer bonuses to workers for increased productivity, and for the government to make tax breaks available for projects to industrialize gas, including in petrochemicals and liquefaction terminals for exporting gas, he added.

But the first step is to pull the country out of the financial crisis, which has more than doubled the rate of inflation over the past year to nearly 55%, the highest since 1990.

The hard times could sully the chances of market-friendly President Mauricio Macri from winning a second term, raising concerns in the oil industry of a return of the populist politics of 2003-15 that hit the sector with capital, currency, price and trade controls.

SLOWER PRODUCTION GROWTH

In a recent report, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a US-based global financial research group, warned of "strong headwinds" for Argentina to meet a goal of doubling oil and gas production to 1 million b/d and 260 million cu m/d, respectively, by 2023.

"The plan is likely to fail," the IEEFA said, citing the fiscal, market, political and environmental challenges.

"The Vaca Muerta extraction plan promises subsidies that are unaffordable, relies on a financially weak Argentine business team and hopes to attract global oil and gas companies when there are much better opportunities elsewhere," IEEFA finance director Tom Sanzillo, a coauthor of the report, said.

He said that while big companies have vowed to invest billions of dollars, "progress is slow, commitments are thin and future plans unrealistic."

Alejandra Naughton, CFO of Grupo Supervielle, a leading bank in Argentina, said it will take "many years" to stabilize the economy and rebuild investor confidence to bet on longer-term projects like in the oil sector.

Even so, Vista's Remy is optimistic that even if there is a change in politics after the presidential election, the policies to promote investment in Vaca Muerta will likely be maintained as a key for building up dollar reserves to support future economic growth.

"Instead of asking why we can't do it, we need to ask why not do it," he said of Vaca Muerta.

-- Charles Newbery, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Pankti Mehta, newsdesk@spglobal.com