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Argentina's YPF shifts focus to shale oil to reverse overall production decline

Buenos Aires — YPF, the largest oil and natural gas producer in Argentina, is focusing on shale oil for production growth as a glut slows natural gas output, managers at the state-backed company said Friday.

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The shift is aimed at reversing an expected an up to 3% decline 3% in overall output this year.

"We have shifted our focus to accelerating our shale oil developments" in Vaca Muerta, the country's largest shale play, said Sergio Giorgi, YPF's vice president of strategy and business development.

Giorgi spoke on a conference call with investors after the company reported late Thursday that its overall hydrocarbon production dropped 11.5% to 486,500 barrels of oil equivalent a day in the first quarter from 549,600 boe/d in the same quarter a year ago, dragged down by a 20.6% plunge in natural gas production to 34.7 million cubic meters a day from 43.7 million cu m/d.

Oil production also fell, but only 0.5% to 226,400 b/d from 227,600 b/d, while output of natural gas liquids dropped 11.2% to 41,700 b/d from 47,000 b/d.

Despite the decline, Giorgi said YPF is sticking to its earlier target of a 2-3% drop in overall production this year. "It is challenging, but doable," he said.

YPF recently started the full-scale development of Bandurria Sur with Schlumberger and La Amarga Chica with Malaysia's Petronas in the oil window, building on its experience in Loma Campana, a partnership with Chevron. Loma Campana was producing most of its net 30,500 b/d of shale oil in Q1, up 63.3% on the year, which helped it increase its total net shale output by 45.1% to 71,100 boe/d in Q1 from 49,000 boe/d, according to the company's latest financial results.

To extend the growth, the company is widening its testing in the oil window, now concentrated in the southeast of the play, and building treatment and transport infrastructure, helping to offset declines at its many maturing conventional oil fields around the country.

"The good news is that our shale oil production growth is offsetting the conventional production decline, and we expect this trend to continue," said Ignacio Rostagno, manager of investor relations.

MORE PROJECTS IN THE PIPELINE

YPF is running six shale oil pilots and expects to go into full-scale development on two of them in 2020 and 2021. It is working with Shell on the Bajada de Anelo block and with a consortium of France's Total, Germany's Wintershall and BP-backed Pan American Energy on the San Roque block.

Another pilot is on its 100%-owned Loma La Lata Oeste block, which is next to Loma Campana, while two blocks in the north of the play -- Bajo del Toro with Norway's Equinor and Chihuido with Chevron -- are being tested with the idea of going into full development starting as soon as 2021.

This is leading to an increase in drilling, and the company expects to take its Vaca Muerta rig count to 18 by the end of the year, up from 14 in Q1, Rostagno said.

The target, he said, is to drill more than 100 horizontal wells this year, mostly for oil.

To handle the expected increase in shale oil output, the company is expanding the oil treatment capacity at a plant in Loma Campana to 130,000 b/d from 75,000 b/d by the end of the year, and building two others with 50,000 b/d of capacity each. An oil pipeline was recently built from Loma Campana to a connection with the national grid.

FINDING MORE GAS MARKETS

With gas, the company is scaling back investment plans, which is one of the reasons for the drop in production.

A surge in gas production over the past few years, led by Vaca Muerta, has created a glut of supply, forcing YPF and other companies to slow production, and even temporarily shut wells. A setback stems from the sharp seasonal fluctuations in domestic demand, which go to more than 140 million cu m/d in the cold season from 90 million cu m/d in the October to April warm and mild seasons.

The country is producing around 130 million cu m/d.

To mitigate the fluctuations, YPF is limiting production to what it believes it can sell near term, and ramping up export deals to sell what cannot be consumed domestically. Indeed, the company increased gas exports by pipeline to Chile to 1.3 million cu m/d in Q1 from zero a year earlier, and took them to 3.3 million cu m/d in April, Rostagno said.

Another 2.5 million cu m/d will be exported through a floating liquefaction terminal it has hired under a 10-year lease and is now testing.

"All is aligned to start liquefying and selling by the third quarter of this year," Giorgi said.

That's a small amount in terms of global demand, meaning that the focus will be on selling on the spot market, he said, adding that the company is talking with potential buyers.

Rostagno said other steps to handle the wide fluctuations in demand are to find more underground storage capacity and to work on plans for a large-scale onshore LNG terminal.

A decision on the later is expected to be made later this year, he added.

-- Charles Newbery, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Valarie Jackson, newsdesk@spglobal.com