FRACTIONAL FLOW

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More on LTO Economics in the Bakken

The goal for any commercial company is to make as high as possible profit and returns on invested (employed) capital, primarily the owners’ capital, equity.

Light Tight Oil (LTO) extraction from the Bakken and Three Forks formations in North Dakota had a new high of 1,17 Mbo/d in Apr-18 according to data published in Jun-18 by the North Dakota Industrial Commission (NDIC).

This article is an update of this (which has more details on specific costs to which there are small changes) and is a small expansion focused on profitability/financial metrics.

  • Scenarios were run there no wells were added as of Jan-19 (in the Bakken, Three Forks formations) with an initial flow above 1,2 Mbo/d to get estimates on NPV (DCF) and returns for the project and on equity (owners’ capital), ROE and ROI with a sustained oil price of $60/bo and what oil price would provide the project with a 7% return (ref table 1).
    All at the wellhead (WH).
    These runs had cut off end 2040.
    The objectives with such scenario analysis is to establish baselines from which it becomes possible to follow developments in several financial metrics, also adjusted for oil price movements.
    Applied to companies, it provides for benchmarking of companies’ management performances.
  • At $60/bo (and $2,50/Mcf for natural gas) the Bakken project would return about 4%.
  • A 7% return was obtained with a sustained oil price of $73/bo (and $3,00/Mcf).
    • The above estimates do not include costs for acreage, 800 Drilled UnCompleted (DUC) wells with an estimated total cost (employed capital) of $2,0B – $2,4B, any refracking (ref Marathon), flared gas and future costs for Plugging & Abandonment (P&A) for about 12 000 wells started as of Jan-09 to end 2018, estimated at a total cost of $1,8B – $2,4B and recognized write downs.
  • Including the items described above, the estimates show a full cycle return of 7% for the Bakken as one big LTO project would be achieved at a sustained future oil price at about $80/bo [$90/bo WTI].
  • One of the best and most reliable metrics for investors are NPV projections for Equity (Owners’ Capital).
    A NPV projection for equity that comes in at about 0 with a discount rate of 10% (the higher the better) is considered acceptable (reference also tables 1-5).
    This metric allows comparisions across sectors.
  • A run was done to estimate the effects from pushing back the time from where no wells were added with 5 years (from 2019 to 2024) while remaining close to cash flow neutral (all other things kept equal). This reduces the return for both the project and equity (owners’ capital).
    The discounted return on equity (owners’ capital) was lowered from 14% to 10% with $73/bo at WH.
    Alternatively a higher oil price is required to achieve some targeted return.
  • By applying financial leverage in the extractive industries, like oil extraction, it allows to extract the reserves faster (accelerate the depletion). In the Bakken the use of high financial leverage explains the rapid buildup in extraction levels.
    In this article financial leverage expresses the ratio of debt [inorganic funding] to equity [owners’ capital] used in a company’s investment.
    When financial leverage works, it boosts return (acts as a multiplier) on owners’ capital.
    If it does not work (what many companies painfully discovered after the oil price collapsed in 2014), leverage works fast in the opposite direction and destroys owners’ capital.

    • From companies’ SEC reports it was found that there is a huge span in their financial performances in the Bakken, one major big oil company has lost all their equity of $4+Billion [in the Bakken], one was found to have big negative retained earnings (accumulated deficit) of $2+Billion and then there are several companies on trajectories towards varying degrees of profitability.
  • The 3 years, 2015-2017 with the oil price under $50/bo left primarily the wells of the 2014 – 2016 vintages (ref also figure 2), suffering from the low oil price, and it is now projected these vintages could incur total losses (write downs) of $6B – $8B with a sustained oil price of $60/bo.
    These losses are and/or will be recognized on the companies balance sheets (equity, reduced owners’ capital) as the wells end their economic life and are Plugged & Abandoned (P&A).

    • Older vintages and future wells could fully or partially make up (cover) for these losses from their profits at a sustained oil price of $60/bo. A lasting oil price above $60/bo speeds the healing.
      Irrespective of a future higher oil price and how this probable loss is handled by the oil companies, the 2014 – 2016 vintages will for many years provide strong headwinds to the profitability for many companies in the Bakken.
      This is one of the many things that is hard (close to impossible) to identify from the companies’ SEC filings.

This post includes some estimates with some profitability metrics for the average 2017 vintage well for 2 price scenarios and how a company with solid finances and strong discipline can boost discounted return on equity.
This also illustrates why project NPVs, undiscounted cash flows, time to pay outs, ROE and ROI may be poor metrics when analyzing and ranking several projects and/or companies.
Short story, several metrics should be estimated and compared to get the best possible information about the prospects for financial profitability for any project/company.

Figure 1 Bakken annual NCF and Cumulative 2009 to Apr 2018

Figure 1: The chart above shows the estimated net cash flows by year [black columns]. The red area shows the estimated cumulative net cash flow since Jan-09 and per Apr-18. LOE, G&A and interest rates (effective, i.e. adjusted for tax effects) based on a weighted average from several companies’ SEC 10-K/Q filings. Taxes according to what was in force. Price of oil, monthly North Dakota Sweet (NDS) and realized gas price; the average from several companies’ quarterly reports.

NOTE; the chart in figure 1 shows an estimate (red area) on the development of total capital employed (equity and borrowed) (as from Jan-09 to Apr-18) that first needs to be recovered before profits can be made.

The payouts were reached late 2022 at $60/bo and late 2021 at $73/bo.

The chart does not give any indication about future profits or losses.

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The Bakken LTO extraction in Retrospect and a Forecast of Near Future Developments

In retrospect, it becomes easier to understand the amazing growth and resilience of Light Tight Oil (LTO) extraction from Bakken (and other US tight oil plays) if the effects from the use of huge amounts of debts (including assets and equities sales) is put into this context.

Debt leverage together with a high oil price are what stimulated the US LTO extraction for some time to appear as something like a license to print money.

Now, and as long present low oil prices persist, the LTO companies are in financial straitjackets.

  • It was high CAPEX in 2015 from external funding, primarily debt and assets/equities sales, that created the impression of LTO’s resilience to lower oil prices (ref also figure 2).
    Actual data show that so far there has been some improvements in well productivities [cumulative versus time]. However, these improvements by themselves do not fully explain the apparent resilience of LTO extraction to lower oil prices.
  • NONE of the wells now added in the Bakken are on trajectories to become profitable at present prices (ref also figure 3).
    The average well now needs about $80/bo at the wellhead to be on a profitable trajectory.
    (The average spread between WTI and North Dakota Sweet has been and is above $10/bo.)
  • As far as actual data from NDIC on well productivity (EUR trajectories) provide any guidance it is not expected that well manufacturing will pick up in a meaningful way before the oil price moves and remains above $60/bo @ WH.

Writing down the drilling cost and rebasing profitability from completion costs [for DUCs, Drilled UnCompleted wells] does not change this fact.

  • The decline in the LTO extraction will (all things equal) relentlessly erode future funding capacities for drilling and completion [well manufacturing].
  • It is now all about the net cash flow from operations, debt service and retirement of debts [clearing the bond hurdles]. Debt management and debt restructuring will remain on top of the agenda for management of LTO companies. It should be expected that the management of these companies will do everything in their powers to clear the bond hurdles and keep their companies out of bankruptcy.
  • For 2016 well additions in the Bakken will fall below the threshold that allows to fully replace extracted reserves.
    In the industry this is referred to as the Reserves Replacement Ratio (RRR).
    For the Bakken the RRR for 2016 is now expected to be below 50%.
    (This lowers the collateral of the LTO companies and their debt carrying capacities.)

At present prices several companies cannot both retire their debts according to present redemption profiles and manufacture a lot of wells. This is why it is suspected that halting all drilling (where feasible [i.e. Contracts without stiff penalties for cancellation]) and deferring completions have become a necessity born out of the requirements for debt management.

This analysis presents:

  • A forecast on total LTO extraction for Bakken (ND, MB/TF) towards the end of 2017.
  • A closer look at a generic LTO company in Bakken and its near future challenges with clearing the bond hurdles.
    (The generic LTO company is based on [weighted] financial data from several, primarily Bakken invested companies’ Security and Exchange Commissions (SEC) 10-K/Q filings for 2015).
    To keep the focus on the (debt) dynamics in play, The Financial Red Queen, I opted to use a generic company. This is also done to play down discussions about specific companies.
  • The important message to drive home is how declining cash flow from operations, the big debt overhang and clearing the bond hurdles will constrain many LTO companies’ funding (CAPEX) for well manufacturing [drilling and/or completion] as long as oil prices remain below $60/bo @WH (or about $70/bo, WTI).

Figure 1: The chart above show actual LTO extraction from Bakken (ND, MB/TF) [green area], the funding constrained forecast towards end 2017 [grey area] and how LTO extraction is forecast to develop if no producing wells were added post Jan-16 [black dotted line].

Figure 1: The chart above show actual LTO extraction from Bakken (ND, MB/TF) [green area], the funding constrained forecast towards end 2017 [grey area] and how LTO extraction is forecast to develop if no producing wells were added post Jan-16 [black dotted line].

The companies operating in Bakken come in many sizes and business models and some of the majors (or subsidiaries thereof) likely have bigger financial muscles, lower debt costs (interest rates) and may have somewhat lower specific costs due to scale of operations.

  • With sustained low oil prices, the servicing of total debt has been and will be the power that forces companies deep in debt and heavily exposed to LTO into bankruptcies and causes losses on creditors and become the real driver behind the steep decline in LTO extraction.

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Written by Rune Likvern

Wednesday, 6 April, 2016 at 21:51

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