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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Drilling for Value, Pt 2: Fundamentals of Petroleum Resource Management

Author’s note: this article has been heavily redacted since its original publish date. Content on the upstream business was redacted and re-posted elsewhere in order to expand more on the business fundamentals there and the resource fundamentals here.


  • The previous installment established that cost-of-supply is the overwhelming driver of petroleum exploration and production value.
  • The geological processes which resulted in the accumulation of hydrocarbons and resulted in the formation of petroleum reservoirs strongly influence the quantities of recoverable resources and their production characteristics.
  • Additionally, geology is a key determinant of cost, and therefore also a key driver of upstream value.
  • A grasp of geological concepts facilitates the interpretation of language within company disclosures — ultimately helping investors identify instances where value and price diverge.

Figure 1: A Different Kind of LeaseA Different Kind of Lease
Source: Art and Framing Plus

Part 1 of this series broadly addressed the fundamentals of the broader petroleum value chain, especially from an investor’s perspective. This installment deep dives on the fundamentals of economic geology (i.e., petroleum resource management) in order to impart a holistic view of geological and technical factors governing petroleum recovery. Since cost-of-supply is the overwhelming driver of value in the upstream oil and gas business, and geology is often the overwhelming factor underlying cost, a basic understanding of petroleum geology is necessary to fully grasp the economic drivers. Topics include petroleum geology, petroleum geography, resource classification, petroleum recovery, and the fundamentals of resource quantity and production estimation. Following installments will leverage this knowledge to address the business fundamental of exploration and production, and subsequently the economics of the upstream business. At a later point, these foundations in petroleum geology, business fundamentals, and economics will help us maximize the utility of financial reports and unravel accounting minutiae.

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Drilling for Value, Pt. 1: The Fundamentals of the Petroleum Industry


  • This series is geared toward value-oriented investors who have an interest in valuing upstream oil and gas assets.
  • This article touches on the economic fundamentals and valuation concepts for nearly every other line of business within the oil and gas value stream.
  • The economics of different types of oil and gas assets vary significantly: businesses which are more involved with the extraction of oil and gas from reservoirs tend to be more vulnerable to external market forces.
  • Valuation of upstream assets and companies can be very difficult to learn but also very repeatable once the initial learning curve has been overcome.

Figure 1: Drilling For Oil by Mead Schaffer as Appeared on The Saturday Evening Post, 9 November 1946
Source: Art.com

Large, integrated oil and gas companies have become a cornerstone for investors seeking stable and growing dividends. Supermajors Exxon Mobil (XOM) and Chevron (CVX) are included in S&P’s Dividend Aristocrats, an index comprised of stocks from the S&P 500 which have been increasing dividends for the last 25 years or more. Yield-oriented investors typically value companies according to their dividends — their yields, abilities to grow, and resiliencies to adverse market conditions. This series of articles is not geared to these people.

Nor is this series intended to appeal to appeal to macro investors. Forecasting macroeconomic conditions is an arcane art of which I am not adept. While it is important to understand the fundamental forces at play which can make or break a business endeavor, I will spend minimal effort discussing petro-politics, the petro-dollar, or forecasting supply and demand. Sorry, OPEC.

This series of articles is meant to appeal to value-oriented investors – those who desire to invest according to perceived discrepancies between value and price and those who desire to locate consistent value creators and/or destroyers within an industry. Valuation of upstream oil and gas exploration and production (E&P) assets will be the primary focus, but I will also cover midstream and downstream assets. Discussions regarding the valuation of other corporate and financial assets and liabilities will chiefly examine decisions regarding how they articulate within the valuation of entire companies.

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UPDATE: US Employment

Greetings, all.

My father just responded to my June 13, 2013 post, “US Employment: What’s Wrong With This Picture?“, with the following WSJ article: “The Hidden Jobless Disaster”.

Especially salient to my analysis on incentives is the following passage:

…research by the University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan has suggested that because government benefits are lost when income rises, some people forgo poor jobs in lieu of government benefits—unemployment insurance, food stamps and disability benefits among the most obvious. The disability rolls have grown by 13% and the number receiving food stamps by 39% since 2009.

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S&P 500 Historical Valuation

Dr. Robert Shiller is a leading authority on behavioral finance, a field that attempts to get at the heart of market economics. What’s at this heart? People, naturally. What’s the point? I argue that it behooves traders and investors alike to retain some degree of insulation from the general population’s view on value, and instead rely on a more rational definition of value. Schiller’s cyclically-adjusted Price-to-Earnings (CAPE) and Price-to-Earning-to-Growth (CAPEG) ratios are indeed very simple, rational, and hold a great degree of predictive power.

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The Labor Force: Who’s Leaving It?

In my last post, “US Employment: What’s Wrong With This Picture?“, I showed the workers of leaving the US Labor Force at an unprecedented rate. But who is leaving and why?

Obviously, workplace dynamics have changed dramatically (e.g., workers are retiring later in life and women have increasingly become a workforce with which to be reckoned). But how and by how much?

Specifically, what remained unclear was why the labor force, defined as the sum of employed and unemployed working age (25 – 54 y/o) adults, had undergone a secular increase from the 1940’s into the 2000’s and is now apparently reversing course. Is this due to a great dislocation of our perceptions and expectations? Perhaps there are other factors at play?

I can speculate all I want, but ultimately I need data to back my assertions. Fortunately, Quandl is making my data-life easier.

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US Employment: What’s Wrong With This Picture?

I would like to thank Quandl for providing me with this idea in their recent “Dataset of the Day“.

Often I have heard the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) and the Federal Reserve’s (Fed) numbers on unemployment are misleading. Even though they show that unemployment is down, it now is obvious that employment is not necessarily up. A shrinking labor force may be a disruptive trend, and is surely worth watching.

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