Drilling for Value, Pt. 4: The Economics of Petroleum Exploration and Production

Note: this post has been heavily redacted since its original data of publication in order to expand on the fundamentals of petroleum geology and the upstream business elsewhere. 

Summary

  • Economic models use assumptions which simplify the effects of accounting, taxes, regulations, and other minutiae in order to glean insights into the drivers of market behavior and value.
  • The effects depletion and commoditization, relatively low cash costs, and often prohibitive resource replacement costs drive the endemically cyclical petroleum investment cycle
  • Petroleum economics are strongly levered to petroleum prices and other extrinsic factors.
  • Maintaining a sufficiently low cost of supply is the primary operational lever capable of creating long-term investment value in the upstream business.
  • Timings of costs are a key consideration for evaluating investment decisions — known discount rates simplify decisions regarding timing preferences.

Figure 1: Pecos, Texas Oilfield
February-22-Hogue-1937-Pecos-AOGHS
Source: Alexander Hogue. Pecos, Texas Oilfield. 1937

The Economics of the Upstream Petroleum Industry
The economics of the petroleum extraction is overwhelmingly colored by the economic factors of depletion and commoditization. Due to the fact that production depletes limited natural resources, the upstream industry must constantly explore for and develop additional resources. Given that the capital investments required to replace depleted resources are usually quite significant in relation to operating costs, resource replacement is a primary driver of costs. Commoditization describes the lack of differentiation in upstream business models and their end products. As a direct result of commoditization, the value propositions of upstream businesses are strongly levered to external market conditions (i.e., namely prices). Taken together, high replacement costs and supplier susceptibility to external market conditions have resulted in endemically cyclical petroleum supplies and prices.

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Right-Headed Investors Should Avoid Upstream MLPs

Summary

  • Over the last seven years, the majority of upstream MLPs have been unable to cover their investment and distribution costs through operating cash flows.
  • Upstream MLPs seems to be indicative of the broader upstream oil and gas industry with respect to investing and distribution/dividend coverage.
  • While some of the upstream majors appear to be fairly priced, high-quality independents tend to be over-capitalized, while under-capitalized firms tend to be of lower quality.
  • The majority of economic value in the oil and gas industry is realized further downstream.
  • Investors who insist on exposure to upstream oil and gas assets are likely better served by focusing on high-quality integrated majors.

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