Financial

As we’ve frequently chronicled, 2022 was a golden year for U.S. exploration and production (E&P) companies and their investors, as soaring commodity prices triggered record cash generation to fund the highest levels of shareholder returns of any American industry. But Camelot didn’t last forever, and the twin impacts of lower hydrocarbon prices and rising inflation inevitably eroded cash flows in 2023. The good news is that these fiscally disciplined producers still recorded the second-best results of the last decade to fund historically strong shareholder returns. In today’s RBN blog, we detail the 2023 cash allocation of the 41 major U.S. E&Ps that we cover. 

Growth for growth’s sake. In the early years of the Shale Revolution, that’s what it was all about. Backed by billions of dollars in Wall Street borrowings, E&Ps plowed vast piles of cash into increasing production. It was the era of “Drill baby drill!” And we all know what happened next. Rabid production growth contributed to oversupply and crude oil prices crashed. But resilient E&Ps clawed their way back by adopting what we now know as capital discipline, initially in fits and starts. Then, after the COVID price meltdown, they went all-in, elevating free cash flow generation to Job #1 and returning a significant portion of cash flow to shareholders. It worked! Financial markets started to think of E&Ps more as yield vehicles than growth plays. But it is in the DNA of oil and gas producers to grow. And now that U.S. crude prices are above $85/bbl, could we see a backslide toward organic growth — a 2024 rendition of “Drill baby drill”? In today’s RBN blog, we’ll explore the historical context of E&Ps’ transition to capital discipline and what it tells us about what’s coming next. 

U.S. E&Ps have just concluded discussions of their Q4 and full-year 2023 results and, as usual, the view of analysts and investors can be summed up by one question: What have you done for me lately? But while the collective results of the 44 producers we track were off from the previous quarter and a record 2022, there’s a lot to be said for how well they held up through a period of unusually low natural gas prices. In fact, if you take a step or two back for a longer-term perspective you’d see a strong historical performance that suggests E&Ps really have learned how to do well through commodity price ups and downs. In today’s RBN blog, we analyze the 2023 results of a representative group of major U.S. producers and look ahead to how 2024 may shake out. 

When legendary University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal was asked how he approached important games, he frequently said, “You dance with the one who brung ya,” which meant sticking with the strategy that produced previous success. After struggling through a period of extreme price volatility in 2014-20, U.S. E&Ps finally locked onto a game plan that works: They wooed back investors and regained financial stability by focusing on generating free cash flow and returning a lot of that bounty to shareholders. In today’s RBN blog, we analyze E&Ps’ 2024 capex and production guidance, which shows that producers have embraced Royal’s concept of sticking with what works. 

The drivers behind most upstream M&A the past couple of years have been consistent — namely, to gain scale (mostly in the Permian) and the economies that come with it, boost free cash flow (and share more with shareholders), and replenish reserves to keep the good times rollin' into the 2030s. There are hints of all that in California Resources’ recently announced $2.1 billion agreement to acquire Aera Energy, creating what would be California’s largest crude oil producer. But in other ways the deal is as different as, well, California and Texas themselves. In today’s RBN blog, we examine the planned acquisition, what it reveals about the companies, and the pros and cons of operating in the nation’s most populous, least-friendly-to-hydrocarbons state. 

A Super Bowl game (and halftime show) for the ages followed up only hours later by a made-in-heaven combination of two of the largest, most admired E&Ps in the super-hot Permian? It doesn’t get any better than this, unless you’re a Taylor Swift fan too — in which case, it may be impossible for you to “shake it off.” In today’s RBN blog, we examine the newly announced plan by Diamondback Energy and Endeavor Energy Resources to combine into a Travis Kelce-sized Permian pure play with more than 800 Mboe/d of crude oil-focused production and more than 6,000 well locations with breakevens of $40/bbl or less. 

Brutal arctic cold may have chilled broad swaths of the U.S. last month, but the scorching pace of upstream M&A activity continued to be red hot, with nearly $20 billion in deals announced in January after a record-setting 2023. Last year’s transaction value totaled an astounding $192 billion, a mark 79% higher than the previous 10-year high and more than the previous three years combined. Why the surge? A wide range of factors influenced corporate decisions to grow through acquisitions rather than organic investment, including commodity prices, equity values, debt levels, operating costs, and production trends. In today’s RBN blog, we’ll analyze M&A trends through several statistical lenses and provide some insights into 2024 activity. 

A lot of energy-industry M&A activity lately has been focused on the acquiring company gaining scale in a shale play or region where it’s already very active, usually the Permian. The latest multibillion-dollar deal in the energy space is different: Sunoco LP (stock ticker symbol SUN), which is primarily involved in fuel distribution east of the Mississippi and in Texas, is buying NuStar Energy (ticker NS), a midstream company with a mix of pipelines (crude oil, products and ammonia) and terminals, most of them within the U.S.’s midsection. As we discuss in today’s RBN blog, the combined company will have a massive footprint, with all kinds of opportunities for synergies and growth. 

In a deal the energy industry had been whispering about for months, Chesapeake Energy and Southwestern Energy will combine to form what will be the largest natural gas producer in the U.S., with 7.3 Bcf/d of production in the Marcellus/Utica and the Haynesville and ready access to the Northeast and the LNG export market — assuming the merger passes muster with federal regulators. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss the merger and why it makes sense for both E&Ps. 

Permian this and Permian that. For several years now, acreage and production in that sprawling, crude-oil-focused shale play in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico have been at the center of so much M&A activity. And the deals keep coming! Just last week, APA Corp. — the international E&P formerly known as Apache — announced that it will be acquiring Callon Petroleum, which in recent years has become a Permian pure play with significant holdings in both the Delaware and Midland basins. In today’s RBN blog, we discuss the APA/Callon deal, the drivers behind it, and why the acquisition makes sense for both companies. 

There’s been a lot of M&A activity the past couple of years among oil and gas producers — midstreamers too. That makes sense. Joining forces can provide all kinds of opportunities: for synergy, economies of scale, and expansion within (or into) key production areas, to name just a few. Well, energy-industry consolidation isn’t limited to E&Ps and midstream companies. Just recently, two major providers of contract compression services — critical to the gathering and processing of natural gas in the Permian and other plays — announced that they will be combining to form what they say will be the largest firm in that space. In today’s RBN blog, we’ll look at the gas compression services sector and the plan by Kodiak Gas Services to acquire CSI Compressco LP. 

The end of one year and the start of another provides a perfect opportunity to take stock — in this case, to examine total shareholder returns for the institutional and individual investors holding stock in oil and gas producers. As it turns out, 2023 was a mixed bag, with gas-focused E&Ps generally benefiting from a rebound in gas prices (current and future), oil-focused companies taking a hit, and diversified producers ending up somewhere in between. In today’s RBN blog, we continue our review of E&Ps’ total shareholder returns (TSR) with a look at Gas-Weighted and Diversified E&Ps. 

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the Javan rhino and the Amur leopard top the global list of most endangered species. Broadening the scope, in 2014-20 we probably would have added the E&P investor to the list, as shareholder returns plunged deep into negative territory for seven consecutive years on volatile commodity prices and massive industry overspending. Almost miraculously, a combination of higher prices and a strategic shift to distribute cash flow to equity holders resulted in record shareholder returns that brought investors back into the fold. However, weakening prices and significant increases in investment have dramatically shrunk returns this year. As we discuss in today’s RBN blog, total shareholder returns in 2023 were mixed: good for gas-focused E&Ps but less so for diversified and oil-focused producers. 

It may be considerably smaller in scale than the recent ExxonMobil/Pioneer and Chevron/Hess megadeals, but Occidental Petroleum’s announcement that it will acquire privately held CrownRock LP for $12 billion is remarkable in its own right. Among other things, the deal will give Delaware Basin-focused Oxy a strong foothold in the absolute core of the Midland Basin, supercharge its free cash flow and — despite increasing Oxy’s debt in the short term — provide a pathway for the company to return much more money to shareholders via dividends and stock buybacks in the years ahead. In today’s RBN blog, we examine Oxy’s planned acquisition of CrownRock and what it means for the acquiring company and the Permian itself. 

Despite dreams of a white Christmas and a “soft landing” for the U.S. economy, there’s a lot going on in the world — much of it upsetting and even gut-wrenching. As for energy, crude oil prices have been sagging after a brief rise and natural gas prices, while up from their lows, remain less than stellar — and it seems things could get far worse in the blink of an eye. All of that has combined to make folks cautious and wary, and that’s impacting how oil and gas producers spend — or hoard — their money. In today’s RBN blog, we analyze U.S. E&Ps’ increasingly conservative cash allocation despite rising returns in Q3 2023.