U.S. shale plays like south Texas' Eagle Ford and North Dakota's Bakken have fueled exceptional production growth and returns for a number of mainly small and mid-sized independent oil and gas producers. For the large integrated majors, however, unlocking U.S. shale's potential has proved much more challenging.
Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A), for instance, has struggled with disappointing drilling results and insufficient returns at many of its U.S. shale operations. After writing down the value of its shale assets by about $2.1 billion in the second quarter of 2013, the company has put up for sale much of its acreage in a bid to improve capital efficiency and shareholder returns.
But despite Shell's shale woes, a few oil majors still see huge opportunity in U.S. shale plays, especially Chevron (NYSE:CVX). Let's take a closer look at where in the U.S. the company is focusing its attention and why it could help drive peer-leading growth over the next few years.
Chevron's Permian bet
Chevron is primarily focused on west Texas' Permian Basin, a decades-old oil play that has been revived in recent years by major technological advances. After completing a major acquisition of 246,000 net leasehold acres in the Permian's Delaware Basin from Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK) back in October 2012, Chevron is now the largest acreage holder in the Delaware Basin, commanding approximately 1.3 million total acres.
As of the end of last year, it had three rigs running in the Delaware and has added more than 150 wells in the area over the past three years. In addition to its sizable stake in the Delaware Basin, Chevron is also actively developing the Wolfcamp tight oil play in the Permian's Midland Basin, where it has more than 480,000 total prospective acres, with more than 1,300 wells producing an average of over 20,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, or boe/d.
As of the end of the frist quarter this year, the company had already drilled over 120 wells in the Permian. By 2020, it expects to more than double its production from the play to around 250,000 boe/d, up from 135,000 boe/d last year. Chevron's key areas of focus going forward will be improving its capital and execution efficiency and identifying sweet spots across its extensive acreage position.
In addition to the Permian, Chevron also maintains stakes in the Marcellus and Utica shales, mainly located in southwestern Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and the West Virginia panhandle, and in the Antrim Shale and Collingwood/Utica Shale in Michigan. The company's daily production from these regions averaged 220 million cubic feet of natural gas per day last year.
Combined with its other two key growth opportunities -- oil projects in the Gulf of Mexico and LNG projects such as Wheatstone and Gorgon in Australia -- Chevron's Permian assets should help the company deliver much stronger production growth than peers such as ExxonMobil and Shell over the next several years.
By 2017, Chevron expects to boost its oil and gas production to 3.1 million boe/d, which would represent 4% compound annual growth and a nearly 20% increase over last year's production of 2.6 million boe/d. At the same time, it plans to slightly reduce spending from $42 billion last year to about $40 billion per year through 2016. Finally, cash flows are set to rise sharply as its new Gulf of Mexico and LNG projects come online over the next few years, which should drive strong dividend growth.
Chevron's huge acreage position in the Permian, combined with major Gulf of Mexico oil projects and LNG projects, should drive peer-leading production growth over the next few years. Chevron also sports the highest earnings per barrel in its peer group and has the highest share of production linked to oil prices. For investors looking for above-average dividend growth and leverage to oil, Chevron may be your best bet among the majors.