A lot has changed in the oil patch over the past year. Crude oil prices collapsed a little over 12 months ago. The U.S. oil price benchmark, West Texas Intermediate, hit a historic low of negative $37.63 per barrel on April 20 as government shutdowns to slow the pandemic caused demand to dry up.
Today, WTI is approaching $75 per barrel. There's growing sentiment that oil prices could soon top $100 per barrel again, with demand returning as the pandemic subsides, but supplies constrained. As oil companies spent much of the past year driving down their production costs to survive on lower oil prices, they can produce a massive gusher of cash if crude hits triple digits.
Here's a look at why $100 per barrel is on the table -- and some oil stocks that stand to cash in if it hits that level.
Why $100 oil is back on the table
Several oil executives and industry analysts have made bold calls that oil could reach $100 per barrel again in the near term. TotalEnergies (NYSE:TTE) CEO Patrick Pouyanne told attendees at the Qatar Economic Forum that "there is quite a chance to reach $100, but we could see again in the coming years some lows as we have been accustomed to volatility." Meanwhile, Royal Dutch Shell's (NYSE:RDS.A) (NYSE:RDS.B) CEO Ben van Beurden made a similar comment: "We're probably going to see both $50 and $100 oil -- don't ask me about the sequence, though." Oil trading house Trafigura and banking giant Bank of America also said that oil could potentially top $100 per barrel over the next year.
ExxonMobil's (NYSE:XOM) CEO Darren Woods described why the industry sees a potential return of triple-digit oil prices. Speaking at the Qatar Economic Forum, Wood said:
Coming out of the pandemic and the lack of investment in our industry, I think it's going to exacerbate the supply and demand tightness as the economies pick back up again. And then, in time, we'll see supply pick up and rebalance. So, we'll see both of them, but in the shorter term, probably higher prices.
With OPEC and other oil producers holding back production and not investing in new wells, the industry could face a supply shortage as the pandemic recedes and demand recovers.
Setup for a potentially massive gusher
Most U.S. oil producers are only investing enough money to maintain their current production rate. That's because the market doesn't currently need any additional supply, since OPEC is still holding back production to push up prices. Producers don't intend to increase their investment levels until the market needs more oil than OPEC has to spare.
As a result, most are already cashing in at the current price point, which has them poised to produce an even bigger gusher if crude oil tops $100 per barrel. Take leading U.S. oil producer EOG Resources (NYSE:EOG). The company only needs WTI to average $39 per barrel to cover its current capital program and dividend outlay, which total $4.8 billion. At $60 oil, EOG Resources will produce $2.5 billion in excess cash. That number grows as oil prices rise. With few uses for this money, EOG is sending it back to shareholders. It recently paid a $600 million special dividend, and could make additional payments if oil prices keep rising.
ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) also has an extremely low break-even level, thanks to last year's acquisition of Concho Resources. By joining forces to reduce costs, ConocoPhillips only needs oil to average $40 per barrel; that's enough to generate the roughly $7.5 billion in cash needed to sustain the combined company's production rate and pay its dividend. At $50-per-barrel oil, ConocoPhillips can produce $3 billion of excess cash, with that number growing along with oil prices. Like EOG Resources, it doesn't have much use for this money, since it had more than $7 billion in cash on its balance sheet at the end of the first quarter. That led it to restart its share repurchase program to return its growing gusher to shareholders.
Marathon Oil (NYSE:MRO) has an even lower break-even rate of $35 WTI. At that price point, it can generate the $1 billion in cash needed to cover the spending to keep its production flat. Meanwhile, at $50 WTI, Marathon can produce $1.1 billion in excess cash, with that number rising to $1.6 billion at $60 WTI. Marathon has little need for that money, so it aims to return its growing gusher to investors via its dividend and share repurchase programs. Marathon could generate and return a significant amount of cash to investors if crude tops $100 per barrel, given its leverage to higher oil prices.
Big-time upside if crude oil keeps rising
Oil companies like EOG, ConocoPhillips, and Marathon thought they were in for another challenging year of low oil prices. That led them to keep a tight lid on spending.
However, with crude prices surging, they're cashing in thanks to their low operating costs. Meanwhile, with oil having the potential to reclaim $100 per barrel, they could produce an even bigger gusher of cash. That sets them up to continue rewarding their shareholders with dividends and buybacks, which could fuel big-time total returns in the coming months.