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Oil majors wary of investing in volatile era
CRUDE prices are surging, and oil majors are cashing in. But with the pain of the last downturn all too fresh in their memories, they remain wary of investing to bring more oil to market, analysts say.
From US$27 per barrel in January 2016, the main international contract climbed to US$57 at the end of last year. Then in May 2018, it rose even higher to hit US$80 per barrel, only to edge back down to around US$75.
As their latest quarterly earnings reports showed, oil companies have seen their profits soar as a result. But the shock collapse of oil prices amid a glut has left companies unwilling to get too comfortable.
Prices remain "extremely volatile", said the chief executive of French oil company Total, Patrick Pouyanne.
Prices were pushed up partly by a deal brokered in December 2016 between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) and Russia. They have since been brought back under control by a new deal struck in June this year, with the oil giants agreeing to open the taps.
However, supply disruptions in Libya, Venezuela and Iran have kept price volatility high. And an exchange of bellicose comments between US President Donald Trump and Iran's Hassan Rouhani over the weekend renewed fears on the markets.
Adding to the pressure, "there is still a Sword of Damocles hanging over the market, and that is shale oil", according to Guy Maisonnier at the French energy research institute IFPEN. He was referring to the non-conventional source that has made the United States a major oil producer once again.
"The oil companies fear that a sharp rise in US production could change the dynamics of the market" with prices quickly sliding lower, he said.
In this uncertain context, oil "exploration and production companies collectively are responding to rising prices first with the desire to reward shareholders through increased dividends and share buybacks", said analyst Readul Islam at the Norwegian research and consulting firm Rystad Energy.
And they are being parsimonious and very selective with investments.
Spencer Welch at IHS Markit said oil firms "are being very cautious, typically testing whether projects are economic at oil prices below US$50 per barrel or even US$40 per barrel before giving project approval." Spending on exploration and production remains weak and is running at roughly half of what it was in 2011-2014, Mr Welch added.
The only place where spending is increasing is in the United States, where the tapping of shale deposits has turned the country into a major oil producer once again.
According to IFPEN's figures, global investment in oil exploration and production hit US$700 billion in 2014, before tumbling along with oil prices. Even if it is rising modestly, it will only total around US$400 billion this year, it forecasts.
This reluctance to invest has prompted warnings from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that supply will not be enough to meet rising demand in a few years.
Mr Welch agreed, saying that while he understood the companies' fears, they would have to show some courage if they wanted to keep the world supplied.
"The world still needs lots of oil, 100 million barrels a day, and will need lots of oil for most of our lifetimes, so finding and developing new oil needs to increase from the current level, because existing production needs to be replaced as it declines," he said.
Years of crisis have also made oil companies favour cheaper, simpler projects to invest in. "What the majors are cautious about is triggering the type of cost inflation that was seen during the days of three-figure oil prices," Mr Islam said.
For instance, BP and its partners had planned to invest US$20 billion in the Mad Dog 2 mega-project in the Gulf of Mexico. But they later changed their minds, judging the project too costly and complex. They eventually decided to invest US$9 billion, after plans for the platform were simplified.
In order to keep costs down, companies are also putting pressure on service providers, which have had to cut tens of thousands of jobs in recent years.
"2018 was the fourth year in a row of shrinking budgets," said Gael Bodenes, director of French company Bourbon, which provides maritime services to oil companies.
"We will have to wait until 2019 to see investments slowly begin rising again," he added. AFP