Shale Explorers Ace Quarterly Exams With More to Prove This Year

So far, shale explorers are passing the test.

The industry, much maligned by investors for excessive spending without returns to show for it, has managed to resist a 22% run-up in oil prices during the first three months of this year, holding output almost flat.

A round-up of data on the drillers shows expectations for record free cash flow and signs that the industry is starting to pay its way. There are also indications of a delicate balance between workers finally returning to the fields, while drilling ramps up at a more moderate pace.

“We emerge from earnings season with continued confidence in a disciplined response from covered E&Ps to higher commodity prices,” Goldman Sachs Group Inc. analysts including Neil Mehta wrote Monday in a note to investors. While one quarter of discipline may not be sufficient for explorers to prove their commitment to moderation, there are at least signs that they’re finally heeding investors’ pleas for austerity, the analysts wrote.

Shale Explorers Ace Quarterly Exams With More to Prove This Year

Free cash flow is perhaps the most closely watched metric in the shale patch these days, and so far, the sector is projected to make more of it than ever before, based on a Bloomberg Intelligence analysis of 31 independent U.S. oil and gas companies.

But it’s not just the biggest independent shale producers -- like EOG Resources Inc. which already reported record free cash flow in the first quarter -- that are showing investors the money. Diamondback Energy Inc. expects to generate a record $1.4 billion in free cash flow before paying out a dividend.

In addition to rebounding oil prices aiding their efforts, explorers are adding to the cash piles by avoiding a huge return to drilling. Devon Energy Corp., for example, plans to cap output growth at 5% in times of “favorable” conditions.

“Our operations are scaled to generate substantial amounts of free cash flow,” Chief Executive Officer Rick Muncrief told analysts and investors earlier this month on a conference call. “With this powerful cash flow stream, I feel it is important to reiterate that we have no intention of allocating capital to growth projects until demand-side fundamentals recover and it becomes evident that OPEC+ spare oil capacity is effectively absorbed by the world markets.”

Shale Explorers Ace Quarterly Exams With More to Prove This Year

While talking about “free cash flow” dipped a bit from three months earlier, it’s still the hottest topic on earnings calls hosted by U.S. oil explorers and producers. Over the past 12 months, it’s come up 822 times during calls and presentations, an increase of more than 1,000% from the same period five years earlier.

The market is taking notice of the trend, which, according to Justin Ramirez, an analyst at Mercer Capital, indicates a ”continued upward trajectory out of the crude abyss.”

Shale Explorers Ace Quarterly Exams With More to Prove This Year

U.S. producers responded to last year’s oil collapse by cutting 2020 capital spending almost in half, and that translates into thousands of jobs lost.

Now that the industry is climbing back, so are the jobs. But there’s still caution in hiring. Although the 9,900 oil-support positions added in March was the largest monthly gain on record, the overall number of U.S. workers in oil and gas remains almost a quarter less than a couple years ago.

Shale Explorers Ace Quarterly Exams With More to Prove This Year

Companies are once again forced to face their mounting debts, this time after leverage ballooned to more than $150 billion at the end of 2019. Following up on last year’s reduction, explorers are using their out-sized cash this year to do more.

“As our portfolio generates increasing free cash flow, we’ll first prioritize debt reduction, and then cash returns to shareholders through dividend increases and opportunistic share repurchases,” Hess Corp. CEO John Hess told analysts and investors last month on a conference call.

Marathon Oil Corp., in giving up its corporate aircraft program to cut costs, said this month it will double its goal of debt reduction this year to $1 billion.

Shale Explorers Ace Quarterly Exams With More to Prove This Year

And while drilling is returning from the depths of last year’s lockdown, the number of rigs hunting for oil still remains at roughly half the level they were at before the global pandemic wrecked oil prices in early 2020.

What Bloomberg Intelligence Says
Oil volume isn’t likely to grow much even above $60. Though an imperfect comparison, E&Ps may look more like utilities in the future, with a sharper focus on returns on capital and variable dividends.
-- Vince Piazza and Kit Konolige, BI analysts
Read the report here.

Nabors Industries Ltd., the world’s biggest provider of land rigs, said last month a survey of its biggest exploration clients in the lower 48 states in the U.S. indicated “flattish” activity plans through the rest of this year.

“The general consensus is that significant production growth is not desirable at this juncture,” Mercer’s Ramirez said. “Steady operations is the name of the game at the moment.”

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