The plunge in oil and natural gas prices over the past year has forced companies across the industry to retrench and seek new ways to profit in a difficult environment. South African energy company Sasol (NYSE:SSL) has always been a little different from Big Oil giants BP (NYSE:BP) and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) in that even BP and Shell both have historically had a substantial presence on the African continent in production and exploration activities, Sasol's focus on synthetic fuels and chemical production give a more diversified look to its business. Sasol has seen its stock struggle in the same way that BP and Shell have, but its latest production figures show remarkable stability given the challenging conditions in the industry. Let's look more closely at Sasol to see how it's adapting to the current environment.
Sasol keeps things steady
Sasol's latest production figures are fairly consistent across the board with its recent past. The company breaks down its results by unit, and across mining, exploration and production, energy, base chemicals, and performance chemicals, Sasol appears to have found a sustainable equilibrium.
In the mining segment, production volume came in at 9.6 million tons in the fiscal first quarter. That's down slightly from the 9.8 million ton quarterly run rate Sasol produced for the full 2015 fiscal year, and the declines were reflected in somewhat lower internal sales to its energy, base chemicals, and performance chemicals segments. External sales stayed fairly steady at 900,000 tons, reflecting continued international demand for Sasol's mined products.
The exploration and production unit's figures were mixed, with African operations performing better than its operations off-continent. The company's production of natural gas and condensate in Canada fell to 4.7 billion cubic feet and 41,200 barrels respectively, down about 10% to 20% from the run rate throughout fiscal 2015. Yet natural gas production in Mozambique actually climbed at a 4% rate, and oil production in Gabon was up about 16% to 455,000 barrels. External sales of crude oil and Mozambique natural gas posted solid increases.
In the energy segment, Sasol also managed to sustain stable results. Refined synfuel production of 8 million barrels was down from the 8.2 million barrel run rate last year, but production at its Natref, ORYX, and Escrarvos facilities was generally higher than full-year results last year would suggest. External sales were also higher, especially in the natural gas and methane-rich gas arenas.
Weakness in the base chemicals business showed in Sasol's results. Sales of polymers were down 13% from fiscal 2015's quarterly run rate, and solvents saw volumes fall 10%. Fertilizer sales sagged 8%, but explosives managed a tiny uptick from last year's run rate. Overall, prices for Sasol's base chemicals fell to $858 per ton, down from $974 last year and $1,119 the year before.
Performance chemicals also sagged slightly. Sales volumes of organics, waxes, and other performance products stayed quite stable from last year's levels. Yet in terms of local currency revenue, waxes rose 5% while the much larger organics division took a 3% hit, leading to an overall drop of about 1.4% to 16.98 billion South African rand.
What's ahead for Sasol?
Sasol has also looked for ways to keep growing. In late October, the company said that it had successfully had two of its three applications to bid on natural gas properties in Mozambique approved. One of the bids involves an offshore area off the nation's coast, while the other is a land-based area that's situated close to existing assets that Sasol has. More broadly, several nations in Africa have natural resources that are relatively untapped, and prospects for further development have only been limited by falling prices.
Sasol stock is likely to continue to struggle as long as energy prices remain low. Overall, Sasol appears to be weathering the storm in the industry as well as possible, and its relationships could help it emerge more quickly from the slump than Shell, BP, and other Big Oil counterparts.