Fresh from its disappointing fourth quarter, which saw fourth-quarter earnings slump 16% year over year as oil and gas production fell 1.8%, ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) is eager to tap into the U.S. shale boom in a bid to boost its stagnant production.
On Monday, the company announced it has signed two major deals to expand its position in West Texas' Permian Basin and Ohio's Utica shale through its subsidiary XTO Energy. Will the moves pay off, or is Exxon simply too late to the U.S. shale game?
Exxon's new U.S. shale deals
In the Permian Basin, XTO inked an agreement with Endeavor Energy Resources, L.P., to fund the development of roughly 34,000 gross acres in the play's liquids-rich Wolfcamp formation. As part of the agreement, XTO will gain significant operating equity in the region, bringing its total acreage position in the Permian to just over 1.5 million acres. The company will primarily drill and operate horizontal wells in the play's deeper intervals, while Endeavor will continue to operate in the shallower parts of the play.
In the Utica, XTO inked a separate agreement with American Energy Partners, an upstart oil and gas company led by former Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon, to allow it to drill in up to 30,000 net acres of XTO's acreage in the Utica. XTO will use the proceeds from the transaction to fund 100% of its near-term development costs as it continues to operate in its core Utica acreage of roughly 55,000 net acres.
Though XTO only recently began developing the Utica, the company was encouraged by initial test results, with one of its recent Utica wells producing at a peak 30-day rate of about 15 million cubic feet of dry gas per day. While that's a number to be proud of, it pales in comparison to the play's leading producers. Antero Resources (NYSE:AR), for instance, reported in its fourth-quarter operating update that its five most recently drilled Utica wells had an average 24-hour peak processed rate of 32.2 million cubic feet per day.
Too little too late?
Exxon and many of its big oil peers were admittedly late to the U.S. shale game. And when they did amass stakes in U.S. shale properties, the moves proved ill timed. For instance, Exxon's plunge into U.S. shale with its 2010 acquisition of XTO Energy for $31 billion turned out to be a costly move for the oil giant, as persistently depressed natural gas prices from 2010 to 2013 weighed on profits.
Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) similarly waited too long and suffered the consequences when worse-than-expected drilling results and low gas prices forced to company to write down the value of its U.S. shale assets by more than $2 billion in the second quarter of last year.
Now for the important question -- will Exxon's shale deals be enough to achieve its targeted production growth rate of 2%-3% over the next several years? It's tough to say. With Exxon's U.S. oil and gas production accounting for just about a fifth of its global production, output from the Permian and Utica would have to ramp up significantly to have any material impact on companywide production.
Even when combined with other major production growth drivers -- including the Kearl oil sands project in Canada, a liquefied natural gas project in Papua New Guinea, and other projects in Argentina, Russia, and elsewhere -- the Permian and Utica may simply not be enough for Exxon to achieve its target.
Further, the loss of production due to the expiration of a 75-year joint venture contract at its Abu Dhabi oilfields and the reduction of its stake in Iraq's West Qurna 1 field, as well as innumerable risks such as project delays along the way, will make it extremely difficult for Exxon to deliver 2%-3% production growth over the next several years.
The bottom line
Exxon may have simply waited too long to get into the U.S. shale game, missing out on amassing large positions in highly prolific plays such as Texas' Eagle Ford and North Dakota's Bakken shale that have delivered stellar returns for smaller peers. Though the Permian Basin and the Utica are also high-quality plays, they're only a small part of the company's global portfolio.
Despite its operational excellence and unparalleled global footprint, Exxon faces a serious challenge in growing its oil and gas production over the next few years -- the unfortunate consequence of a world where the vast majority of oil and gas reserves have already been depleted or are under the control of foreign governments.