I’ve been sucking my thumb considering making an investment in two natural gas producers who are actually quickly diversifying into a more balanced oil/gas production mix. The two companies I’m looking at are Chesapeake Energy and Sandridge Energy. What is holding me back is the future of natural gas prices. I’m bullish on oil long term, but I think the shale discoveries in the United States have likely changed the game for natural gas.
I’ve written about Chesapeake a couple of times:
Today I read an interesting commentary from Oakmark that is fairly close to what I have been thinking. The main parts of their thoughts are below:
Energy and Disruptive Technologies
Those of you who have paid attention to our discussions concerning our energy investments over the years might remember that at one point we strongly favored domestic producers of natural gas, given what we saw as a favorable supply-demand dynamic with natural gas—the favored carbon fuel of the environmentally conscious. At the time we thought that a business that could develop and produce natural gas for under $4 per mmbtu and then could sell it at prices in excess of $7 per mmbtu was a good business. It was even better in those periods when a substantial amount of yearly production could and would be hedged for sale at prices in the range of $8 - $10 per mmbtu. In recent months, the dynamics of the natural gas marketplace have changed and we have reduced our exposure to gas considerably. Moreover, our other energy investments, primarily in Concho Resources, Cenovus, and Apache, have taken on a more oily mix. Because of these changes, we felt that a discussion of disruptive technology was in order.
Commodity prices are of course primarily affected by supply and demand issues. Commodities that are in short supply might have higher prices due to the increased costs of meeting environmental and safety standards, the continued deterioration in the size and grade of resource deposits, and the difficulty of accessing these deposits. Often, new technology can mitigate these upward price trends. For example, seismic imaging can help locate petroleum and mining deposits. Farmers employ genetically modified seeds and use larger GPS-equipped tractors. New chemicals and drilling techniques can extract more oil and gas from a well. The impacts on production costs might be incremental, but if the technology change is great enough, new technologies can lower production costs while increasing the supply of the commodity. We classify a technology as disruptive, then, when it significantly lowers the supply/demand equilibrium price while it simultaneously causes a surge in production capacity.
Offshore drilling was one of the first disruptive technologies in the petroleum market. Even though it started in the 1960s, the technology was not widely adopted until the late 1970s during the oil price shock. Initially, drilling occurred at depths less than 400 feet, and it moved quickly to the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, and other locations, resulting in increased oil production, even though demand increased only marginally. This geographic expansion was the result of the OPEC-producing countries cutting production by 40% from 1975 to 1985. Given an oversupply of the commodity, prices remained flat for two decades after the introduction of the disruptive technology. The end result of this price suppression, however, was a production peak, which led to substantial and sustainable real increases in the price of oil. We think that natural gas prices are now at a similar tipping point. Horizontal drilling techniques have been used in this country for more than twenty years. However, since 2003, new fracturing techniques for wells (especially in shale) have led to a 10x increase in horizontal drilling rigs. Horizontal drilled wells are now thought by some commentators to be responsible for more than 80% of incrementally produced natural gas in the U.S.
Over the past five years natural gas needed to trade at $6 - $7 per mmbtu to encourage new production of natural gas. Lower prices tended to cause a reduction in drilling and production to slow accordingly, resulting ultimately in a supply-demand imbalance that would increase prices until the demand was met again. In the past twelve months, prices have remained under $5 per mmbtu with the expectation that production would again be shut-in and drilling curtailed until pricing corrected back towards the $7 mmbtu range. The problem with these assumptions is that many companies have improved their horizontal drilling techniques to a point where they can earn attractive returns with gas at much lower prices than had been the case even a few years ago. As this technique becomes increasingly adopted by more companies, we are concerned that horizontal drilling will become a truly disruptive technology, resulting in lower price highs for natural gas. The prices at which producers will continue to expand production now appear to be in flux and drifting lower towards a new clearing price. Horizontally drilled wells may actually only generate negative cash flow when gas prices fall to $3 per mmbtu for the most efficient producers. Higher cost wells can be shut without ending oversupply because of the greater efficiency of horizontally drilled wells. Each horizontal rig can surge production by 5-10x the previous capability of vertically drilled wells. Thus, companies can adjust supply to meet demand in a much shorter time frame than the months historically required to correct imbalances. Thus, for the foreseeable future we expect natural gas prices to remain under $5.50 per mmbtu. Capacity should come off line as prices go below $3.50.
Regarding oil, we reach a different conclusion, given that both undersea and in previously explored areas on land, a substantial amount of new oil is being discovered as a result of improvements in technologies. Additionally, improvements in recovery as well as in drilling and production techniques are extracting more from existing wells than was originally thought possible. That said, OPEC continues to act as a constrictor of supply by being the swing producer, so that disruptive technologies requiring higher capital investment have not taken root as widely as with natural gas, given the global market for oil. What price is needed to bring on new production, and the sustainability of same, is a more complex question. By the same token, a new disruptive technology in either deep-water drilling techniques or for tar sands could substantially lower production costs and become a game changer.
So I guess I’m still left sucking my thumb. I find Chesapeake especially tempting as I think they are fairly compelling even at lower natural gas prices with a potential kicker from a rapid move they are making to liquids.