Exxon Cuts Permian Growth
Exxon Mobil is slowing the pace of its flagship shale project in the Permian Basin, one of the first signs that the oil majors are throttling back on production in response to the recent slump in prices.
The U.S. energy giant will cut Permian production growth by about 10% over the next two years, the company said at its analyst day in New York on Thursday, but will stick to its long-term plan to almost triple output from the basin by 2024.
Exxon’s short-term slowdown in the Permian stands in contrast to plans by rival Chevron Corp., which this week increased its output target for the basin to fund as much as $80 billion of dividends and share buybacks over the next five years.
Oil prices have plunged in recent weeks as concern mounts over the impact of the coronavirus on global consumption. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said earlier this week that demand will contract in 2020 for only the fourth time in 40 years. The pressure is particularly acute for Exxon. Its shares have dropped to a 15-year low as it continues to spend heavily on new projects through the downturn as part of a counter-cyclical strategy.
“Today, oversupply is driven by industry investments and some of these growth markets have exceeded demand,” Chief Executive Officer Darren Woods said at the investor presentation. “We’ve got a very challenging short-term margin environment which is now being compounded by the growing economic impact of the coronavirus.”
The Permian pullback means this year’s capital spending will be not more than $33 billion, the low end of its previously targeted range. Even so, Exxon said its long-term plans were unchanged, with spending rising to as much as $35 billion a year through 2025.
The scale of Exxon’s spending has meant the oil behemoth has failed to cover its dividend payments with cash flow for eight out of the last 10 quarters, relying on asset sales and borrowing to make up the difference.
It’s not clear that the oil major’s analyst day presentation will be enough to soothe wary investors, Biraj Borkhataria, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, wrote in a note to clients Thursday.
The lack of a material change in strategy and capital spending “leave us thinking that XOM is in for another tough year,” Borkhataria said, referring to Exxon’s ticker symbol. The longer a recovery in the company’s downstream and chemicals business takes, “the longer XOM generates weaker free cash flow and returns versus peers, and the more likely investors start to question the premium multiple it trades on.”
Payout Problems. Exxon said Thursday its balance sheet has “significant financial capacity” to pay for project spending while growing the dividend. Debt is “available at historically low cost.” Its shares dropped 3.8% to $50.44 at 9:36 a.m. in New York amid a broader equities decline.
The company’s Permian pullback is another sign that U.S. shale growth may be slowing. West Texas Intermediate crude prices have dipped well below $50 a barrel, a level at which many of the independent operators in the Permian are thought to be losing money. Shale producers have been cutting spending and hiking dividends as investors demand better returns.
“The company emphasized it is evaluating the pace of near-term development activities in response to market conditions, and can do so while preserving value,” Exxon said in a separate statement, referring to the Permian.
Exxon, along with Chevron, is making a large bet on the Permian as a source for future production growth. Chevron told investors Tuesday that it sees its Permian output plateauing at 1.2 million barrels a day by the mid-2020s with capital spending of about $4.5 billion a year.