Oil's Hired Hands Are Looking Beyond Shale to an Overseas Boomlet

(Bloomberg) -- The world’s biggest oilfield-service companies may have finally found something to talk about beyond the U.S. shale boom.

The oil explorers they serve are forecast to boost spending for a second straight year. While North America will gain the most, jumping an estimated 14 percent in 2018, international spending is rising much faster than expected at the start of the year, said James West, an Evercore ISI analyst.

It’s a boomlet, not a boom. But for servicers still struggling to recover from a brutal oil price rout, any gain can offer positive promise. That’s particularly true for companies with robust international operations such as Schlumberger Ltd. and Baker Hughes, who report earnings on Friday. Over seven months, West boosted his overseas growth forecast to 8 percent from 4 percent. Investors will be eager to hear what the companies have to say.

“It’s more rigorous and stronger than we thought,” West said in a telephone interview. “Because it’s so much bigger than North America, it will be the biggest driver of earnings for the next couple quarters.”

Oil's Hired Hands Are Looking Beyond Shale to an Overseas Boomlet

Ever since oil markets emerged from the price collapse, traditional strongholds of exploration -- the deep seas, for instance, and Africa -- have struggled to draw investment because U.S. shale plays were so cheap to drill that they presented the most profitable opportunities.

Explorers wounded in the rout have made their comebacks by becoming more efficient in drilling decisions and activities, and by demanding lower costs from suppliers. Service companies, meanwhile, have found themselves at the other end of that give-and-take dynamic.

Now, though, the first strong hints are surfacing that international projects may be closing the gap with shale, becoming somewhat less expensive and offering an alternative to increasingly packed plays, such as the Permian Basin.

Schlumberger, which generates most of its business outside the U.S. and Canada, told investors last month that sales are growing in Asia, Europe, Africa and Latin America. “This is a clear sign that a broader-based international recovery has started,” Executive Vice President Patrick Schorn said then.

International demand for the technical experts, equipment and brute strength provided by oilfield servicers is expanding after OPEC and allied crude producers agreed just weeks ago to elevate output. In an effort to plug a supply gap stemming from production declines in places like Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Russia already have boosted output and more drilling to stoke further increases are coming.

Myanmar, Australia

Halliburton began helping Saudi Aramco with fracking and other services this month under a long-term contract. Meanwhile, Baker Hughes inked contracts to assist explorers in Australia and Myanmar in recent weeks. Norwegian oil giant Equinor ASA recently awarded about $3.6 billion worth of new work to Halliburton, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes under 4-year contracts with options for multi-year extensions.

That said, “Permian” is still expected to be the byword of quarterly conference calls because of the long shadow American shale still casts over the drilling industry.

The Permian has attracted more than 20 percent of all the active rigs on the globe and no region has shown comparable growth: since the start of 2016, Permian drilling activity has more than doubled, according to Baker Hughes, which has been tracking rig deployments for seven decades.

“We expect most service companies to report few, if any, signs of an imminent slowdown in completions in the Permian,” a group of Barclays Plc analysts including David Anderson said in a note to clients.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.