Challenges, opportunities await energy sector after pandemic disruption

By Ellen Chang

The energy industry is now focusing on balance sheet strength and free cash flow as it prioritizes increasing production growth, which remains challenging. That was one of the strategic messages imparted by Helen Currie, chief economist for ConocoPhillips at a recent AICPA Oil and Gas Conference session.

U.S. exploration and production companies face higher capital costs as investors question whether they want to be exposed to the industry, Currie added. The result is that the cost of obtaining capital "will continue to be higher than pre-COVID for high yield and investment grade companies," she said.

Oil and gas producers have been dealing with challenges spurred by the coronavirus epidemic since early in the year. When demand tanked in the spring as many cities and states entered lockdowns, the stocks of energy companies also fell drastically. Energy giant ExxonMobil, long a blue chip stock, was removed from the Dow Jones Industrial Average in August — leaving Chevron as the only energy company remaining in the index.

For now, energy consumption patterns have shifted, impacting demand forecasts from nine months ago. A large percentage of employees are still working from home, air travel has been reduced drastically, e-commerce sales have risen, and global freight movement has also declined sharply, Currie said during the Nov. 18 online session.

The overall declines in energy demand have been partially mitigated by other pandemic-related factors. Many people have shifted away from taking public transportation and are relying instead on using their personal cars to get to and from work, school, and other activities. As more people shop online, the number of miles driven by delivery trucks increased. The petrochemical industry has also benefited since the number of single-use plastic containers for food has risen since March.

U.S. oil producers remain significant producers but at a smaller scale due to lower demand globally. While demand is growing, it is lower than previous forecasts projected, Currie said. Some oil projects have been deferred but are expected to come online in the future.

"Consumers are responding to the changes in consumption, and it will take a couple years to get back to a sustained 100 million barrels per day," she said, referring to the fact that global demand in 2019 averaged just over 100 million barrels per day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

While oil demand will not recover immediately, a large amount of volatility in crude oil prices will remain in the near term, Currie said.

"We think we are past the worst of things," she said, but still adds that, "it creates a real challenge for management teams."

The Russia/OPEC alliance will have a "growing influence" on the industry and "opens oil markets to greater exposure to geopolitics and market volatility," Currie said.

The need for oil and gas and their products will remain "essential" beyond 2040, based on estimates by the EIA even as the number of renewable energy sources rise and energy companies transition to lower emissions output, she said.

"It is not practical to think they are going to disappear," Currie said. "They are still going to be needed in decades in the future."

ConocoPhillips does not see a "value proposition" for its shareholders to invest in renewables, she said.

But the oil behemoth is focused on being an "environmentally strong operator" and will engage with policymakers, Currie said.

Instead, the company focuses on being a Paris-aligned E&P company with the low cost of supply portfolio, strategy, and balance-sheet strength to stay competitive and return cash to its shareholders through cycles, she said.

In October, the oil company said it adopted the Paris-aligned climate risk framework with an ambition to meet net-zero operational emissions by 2050. ConocoPhillips said it would focus on "more aggressive greenhouse gas emissions intensity targets and actions" since the goal of the Paris Agreement is to limit the rise of global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius. One new goal of the company is to lower its greenhouse gas emissions to 35%–45% by 2030 instead of its earlier 5%–15% goal. The company lowered its methane intensity by almost 65% since 2015.

Technology breakthroughs will help companies and consumers reduce emissions globally, Currie said. Transitioning to other energy sources needs to be conducted in the context of what is best for investors she said.

British Petroleum, the British oil company, has an aggressive plan to lower emissions and rely more on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. The company said in August that it plans to reduce oil and gas production by 40% by 2030, invest more money in low-carbon energy, and add more renewable generating capacity. BP paid $1.1 billion for stakes in two U.S. offshore wind farms owned by Norwegian energy company Equinor this year.

ConocoPhillips acquired Concho Resources, one of the largest unconventional shale producers in the Permian Basin in 2020 in an all-stock transaction. The combined company will have about 23 billion barrels of oil equivalent resources globally, including in the Delaware and Midland basins along with positions in the Eagle Ford and Bakken in the Lower 48 and the Montney in Canada.

Ellen Chang is a freelance writer in Houston. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, (Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com), the JofA's editorial director.

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