You Can't Ignore Big Oil's Comeback Kid

In the face of its massive 2010 Gulf of Mexico tragedy, Texas refinery explosion, abrupt managerial changes, and difficulties in Russia, you may assume that the headline above refers to BP (NYSE: BP  ) . I'm not yet ready, however, to diagnose a recovery for the London-based company. Rather, I'm more inclined to allow the headline about a healing by a member of big oil to refer to Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B  ) .

Shell's travails of a few years ago didn't receive the widespread and lingering attention that BP's Macondo well explosion and massive spill garnered. So you may be wondering why I've attached a "Comeback Kid" moniker to the company. The fact is, however, that the Anglo-Dutch company spent a portion of the middle years of the past decade working feverishly to extricate itself from an accounting scandal related to inflated reserve reports. The affair obviously besmirched Shell's reputation with investors.

Did Gazprom shell out?
No sooner had that scandal been smoothed over than the company became crosswise with its "hosts" on Russia's Sakhalin-2 project on Sakhalin Island. While ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) charged along virtually without incident on Sakhalin-1, Shell was forced by the country's often less-than-amicable government to sell 50% plus one share in its project to government-controlled Gazprom for $7.45 billion, a price that was generally seen as "bargain-basement."

That's not to indicate that Shell was faultless in causing the sale, which left it with a 27.5% stake in the project. Before it was given the proverbial operating gate, the company had allowed costs at Sakhalin-2 to escalate to more than double its initial estimates.

Regaining its energy
Today, however, aside from the normal difficulties that plague all members of the industry as they work to produce oil and gas in the world's geologically or geopolitically challenging venues, Shell has carved out a solid position among the bigger companies. Its approximately 90,000 employees work in more than 80 countries, exploring for and producing oil and gas or operating the company's dozens of refineries and chemical plants along with its 43,000 worldwide service stations.

It's noteworthy that Shell has essentially achieved a global balance between oil and gas production. On the oil side, the company was the most active bidder in the latest central Gulf of Mexico lease sale -- the first such offering since the Macondo spill -- Shell led all bidders by coughing up $406.6 million for 24 mostly deepwater blocks. In part as a result, the company made news earlier this week when it agreed to a unique 10-year contract with Transocean (NYSE: RIG  ) for the provision of four newbuild drillships. The new units will be capable of drilling up to 40,000-foot wells in a maximum of 12,000 feet of water.

Destruction down on the delta
Shell also continues to restructure its asset portfolio. For instance, while it produces more light sweet Nigerian crude than any other company, with its 800,000 barrels-per-day output last year, it lately has unloaded its 30% stake in a major Niger Delta lease. Conversely, it recently bought a nearly $2 billion interest in Texas' revitalized Permian Basin from Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK  ) . The wisdom in trimming its assets in volatile Nigeria was evidenced just last week when the company was forced to shut down a 150,000 barrels-per-day pipeline in the Delta after it was damaged by a fire apparently started as part of an oil stealing effort by militants.

Offshore Alaska, Shell has spent $4.5 billion preparing to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Indeed, with federal approvals largely in hand, it appeared ready to begin its controversial operations there this summer. The effort was thwarted, however, by damage to an undersea containment dome that would capture spillage from a drilling malfunction. As such, Shell's Alaskan efforts nevertheless are being limited to time-consuming "top-hole" efforts by a pair of drillships. The intention is to intensify the exploratory efforts during the 2013 four-month drilling season. The U.S. Geological Survey believes Chukchi and Beaufort may contain 26 billion barrels of oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of gas.

On the gas side, the company is a partner in the giant $45 billion Gorgon LNG project. Also, as I noted to Fools earlier this week, the company is having a huge offshore LNG-processing vessel constructed in South Korea. The behemoth vessel will also be used offshore Australia and will be six times the size of big Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, and is intended to shield the company from the rapidly escalating costs of onshore LNG facilities in the country. It ultimately will permit Shell to operate in especially remote areas.

The Foolish bottom line
I could continue, for instance by describing Shell's efforts to process Canada's bitumen, its production of biofuels from sugar cane in Brazil, and its efforts to enhance production from Iraq's big Majnoon oilfield. Beyond that, Fools should be aware of the company's alluring 5.3% indicated forward annual dividend yield. But I believe you get the message: At the very least, Royal Dutch Shell should be included on your personal version of My Watchlist.

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies named in the article above. The Motley Fool owns shares of ExxonMobil and Transocean. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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