3 Threats to Total's Success

Much like its peers among the integrated major oil companies, Total  (NYSE: TOT  ) has operations that span the globe. Unlike its peers, it doesn't have name recognition here in the United States, and investors sometimes forget about it. During its recent investor day presentation, the company announced that it is looking to bring 750,000 barrels per day of new projects online between now and 2017. Will its existing operations drag it down? Let's take a look at three issues that could potentially send Total off its growth plan.

Risky upstream production


For an integrated major with operations all over the world, Total has a concentrated production base. Fifty-five percent of its oil and gas production comes from Sub-Saharan West Africa, the North Sea, or the United Arab Emirates. When speaking only of oil, that number jumps to 69%. While it can be beneficial for a company to focus its production in core regions and replicate operational efficiencies, these regions have some major drawbacks.

Nigeria is one of today's most troubling regions in which to produce oil and gas. Theft, sabotage, and other headaches render this region less and less attractive for integrated majors despite the large reserves of oil in the Niger Delta. Total, like many of the other companies operating in the region, have tried to shift production from onshore regions to offshore, where these events can be more controlled. 

In the North Sea region, the company had a major gas leak last year in the Elgin field. What is especially troubling about this leak is the reason it occurred: it was caused when a salt used in the drilling fluid eroded the well casing. Total has now warned neighboring driller Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A  ) that the combination of these fluids with the high-pressure, high-temperature nature of these North Sea fields could result in other wells running into problems, and estimates that it will need to spend about $2.5 billion to replace at-risk wells.

Sluggish downstream earnings
For the most part, integrated majors derive the lion's share of their earnings from the upstream side. Total is no exception: in 2012, more than 85% of the company's earnings came from the upstream side of its business. Despite the small contribution that the downstream side provides the bottom line, the company's downstream operations have under-performed those of its competitors.

Company 2012 Downstream & Chemical Earnings ($millions) Net Income Margin for Downstream ROCE for Downstream
Total 1,661 0.8% 6.1%
Exxonmobil (NYSE: XOM  ) 10,588 2.8% 23.9%
BP (NYSE: BP  )  2,539  0.7% 16.8%

Source: Company 10-ks, author's calculations 

One thing to note is that Exxon actually posted downstream earnings of $17.1 billion last quarter, but $6.5 billion of that was from the sale of its Japanese refinery and chemical facilities to a subsidiary. Earnings, margins, and ROCE in the table were adjusted to account for this sale.

There are two major reasons for Total's downstream blues. First, a majority of the company's refining and chemical capacity is in Europe, and high prices for both crude oil and naphtha for chemical feedstock is rendering it less competitive than similar facilities in the US. In fact, the company's refiners and chemical plants in the US ran at 99% capacity in 2012, versus an average of 86% across its other segments, showing the disparity between the two regions. To add insult to injury, European demand has been waning for the past five years: since 2007, total petroleum demand in Europe has declined by 10.5%.

The company is hoping to turn this around with the massive Jubail refinery and chemical facility it is about to complete in a joint venture with Saudi Aramco. This facility will net Total 150,000 barrels per day of refining capacity, as well as 400,000 metric tons of chemical production. 

Higher debt load
For investors, Total's contractual obligations are a red flag. This is the combination of both the company's long term debt and any other financial obligations, such as pension and asset retirement obligations. Currently, Total has an obligations-to-capital ratio of 44.5%, which is bested only by BP's 50.2% ratio. A large chunk of BP's obligations, however, are related to the Deepwater Horizon spill, which is slowly winding down. According to The Economist, this is actually historically common among European firms, which prefer bank financing to that provided by the stock market. So investors who want to look at Total, or any other European company, should be aware of the high debt loads these companies take on, and the risk that it could entail. 

What a Fool believes
Overall, Total has some high quality projects coming online in the next couple of years. Seventy-five percent of those 750,000 barrels of new production projects are either in oil or oil-indexed natural gas, which should provide a nice boost to earnings. If Total can manage to keep operations running smoothly in its core production centers, manage its sluggish growth on the downstream side, and keep its financial house in order with its higher debt level, then Total might be one to put on your radar.

A driver for oil's success
The price of a barrel of oil will determine of how Total will decide to invest in the future, and they are not the only ones. Different oil price environments mean some companies will thrive while others falter. To help you better understand this complex web of oil prices and energy prospects, our top analysts prepared a special report. Not only does it unravel the mysteries of the market, but it also points out three companies that are poised to profit under current market prices. Simply click here and we'll give you free access to this valuable report. 

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