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. 


  • 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
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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PBF Energy’s Assets Trading Well Below Fair Value; Multiple Catalysts Ahead

Executive Summary
PBF Energy (PBF) is a bargain at current market prices. PBF’s adept management team, in conjunction with private equity partners, acquired its core refining assets at fire sale prices in 2010 and 2011. Among these assets are the Paulsboro and Delaware City refineries which, following initial turnarounds, are now the crown-jewels of the East Coast (PADD 1) refining system. East Coast refineries have historically lacked the structural advantages of their Mid-Continent and Gulf-Coast counterparts. However, management’s aggressive investment program in a “crude-by-rail” logistical infrastructure promises to close the gap by adding much lacking optionality through access to cost advantaged crudes. Although the ownership structure has legacy problems and the company will undoubtedly continue to face cyclical margin and secular regulatory issues, the stock is much too cheap. A discounted cash flow analysis and an economic book value analysis convergingly indicate that the stock is fairly valued at around $50 per share (about 60% higher than current prices of about $31/share). Continue reading