(Reuters) – About six years ago, an army of agents hired by energy companies started desperately courting landowners across the United States whose farms and ranches happened to sit atop some of the richest oil and gas deposits in the world. And so began one of the biggest land grabs in recent memory.
Those days are over.
U.S. energy titan Chesapeake Energy is quickly cutting back on an aggressive land-leasing program that in recent years has made it one of America’s largest leaseholders, putting an end to half a decade of frenzied energy wildcatting.
Beset by growing governance and financial problems, and a sharp slump in natural gas prices, the No. 2 U.S. gas driller is reducing by half the ranks of its agents, known in the industry as landmen.
With little evidence that its competitors are taking on the role of leading industry lease-buyer, Chesapeake’s new found frugality is expected to usher in a more sedate period of U.S. land buying, and a sizeable cultural shift for an industry that has been acquiring new acreage at almost any cost.
A surge in drilling into rich shale-gas seams from Pennsylvania to Texas has pushed natural gas prices to 10-year lows, forcing producers, including Chesapeake, to cut output and put the brakes on new wells.
Drilling simply to hold on to leases represents about half of U.S. natural gas output, analysts say, which has helped keep production at record highs despite plummeting prices. Leases held by energy companies tend to last about three years, but will typically remain valid indefinitely if an energy company drills wells and produces fuel on the leased acreage.
It should be fairly easy for drillers to re-hire agents and secure more land when prices recover, according to landmen sources, and production is not expected to be affected immediately. But a lull in leasing could briefly affect production longer term, given that it takes up to six months to secure large tracts of land.
“Chesapeake has always been a bellwether for where the next big play is. It would come, lease large blocks and send a signal to the market,” said Adam Bedard, senior director at Bentek Energy in Colorado. “Without them, the pace of land acquisition might slow.”
In a move to mollify disgruntled shareholders, Chesapeake plans to reduce its use of contracted landmen from 1,300 now to 650 by the end of the year, said Chief Executive Aubrey McClendon, who was stripped of his chairmanship last month after Reuters reported a series of governance missteps.
The reduction, which is expected to help reduce towering debt levels, marks an 80 percent decrease from its peak of 3,400 landmen, McClendon said.
The cull has begun. Over the past month, 225 contracted landmen were cut from Chesapeake jobs, said one Ohio-based landman, who, like most in the close-knit industry, would only speak off the record.
“Chesapeake’s activity level in the Appalachian region is minimal now. It has devastated the (landman) industry,” the source said. “The Chesapeake debacle is one thing, but the rest of the industry shortfall is because a lot of the projects are intertwined with Chesapeake,” he added.
The Oklahoma-based company has become one of the largest leaseholders in the United States, amassing more than 15 million acres of land for drilling or an area about the size of West Virginia.
One mid-sized U.S. brokerage that does lease work for Chesapeake has experienced a 15 percent to 20 percent fall in business over the last 90 days due to a slowdown not just in Chesapeake activity but across the board, a manager for operations at its eastern division told Reuters. About 15 percent of that company’s business comes from Chesapeake, he said.
“We are getting to the point where companies are becoming more cautious – that is what we are seeing,” he said, asking that he not be named.
Other major producers, including Encana Corp, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron, said they are not planning to materially change their strategy of land acquisition or staffing numbers, suggesting a gap might be left as Chesapeake, long the pioneer in drill leasing, retreats.
“We have not reduced our land staff nor have we made any changes in the way we conduct land operations,” said a spokesman for Encana, one of Chesapeake’s main land-leasing rivals. Encana employs an in-house staff of about 170 workers in its land department. Shell also said it was “not planning any major staffing level changes in our land function for leasing activity.”
Landmen in the field reckon companies are now well-placed to increase leasing again when they need to, but it could take up to six months between a decision to lease the land and the drilling, potentially creating a lull in activity, sources said.
While a fall in leasing will affect the landmen, it is unlikely to affect gas output for quite some time given the amount of land already leased and the hundreds of wells drilled that have yet to begin producing.
“The huge land grabs in the gas plays are coming to an end,” said one energy hedge fund manager. “Even without more leasing, however, these companies have backlogged a huge inventory of drilling locations.”
The backlog of 3,500 oil and gas wells in the United States is about 1,000 more than usual, according to Randall Collum, a natural gas analyst at Genscape in Houston.
It could take more than a year to exhaust the natural gas portion of that supply as pipelines come online to connect new producing regions, such as in Ohio, to areas of higher demand, he said. Moreover, the reserves accumulated over the last decade are expected to take longer to dwindle away.
That scenario is likely to put a cap on prices in the near term, with or without Chesapeake.
AFTER THE BOOM
When U.S. drillers employed new technologies during the last decade to economically tap oil and gas from shale rock, results showed the potential for a massive revival in waning domestic production.
In 2006 and 2007, companies began rushing to acquire new leases. Geologists pored over maps, in search of the sweetest acreage. Landmen were hired like never before, court houses in energy-rich regions filled with workers quickly securing leases. Rural and depressed areas in Pennsylvania, North Dakota, and Ohio became, by geological coincidence, new target areas for energy companies.
Teams of between 50 and 100 landmen were charged with securing hundreds of thousands of acres in a matter of weeks. Some would knock on landowners’ doors, while others specializing in title work would make the lease legally secure and determine, among other things, who receives royalties on the production.
Chesapeake led the charge, spending billions of dollars a year on speculative leasing, helping to push land prices higher in energy-rich regions. In 2011, it became the lead acreage holder in the Utica formation shale in Ohio with 1.5 million acres, and was the first to publish production figures from new wells there.
After Chesapeake arrived, other majors such as Anadarko and Exxon Mobil quickly followed. Much of the best drilling areas have already been swept up in what is now thought – though not fully proven – to be one of the most promising oil and gas plays in the country.
Now, five years after the boom began, natural gas output is at an all time high. The success has, in many ways, backfired. Prices have dropped so far that companies can barely afford to drill in pure natural gas plays. Chesapeake, the self-proclaimed ‘champion’ of U.S. natural gas, is facing a $10 billion cash-flow shortfall this year, forcing it to rein in spending.
“It will slow down the overall aggressiveness if Chesapeake isn’t out there leading the charge,” said Genscape’s Collum. “But it is all about prices. If prices rise then companies will come back in.”
- Chespeake Energy Seeks to Void Order to Buy Energy Rights – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- Land owner caught between energy giants (business.financialpost.com)
- Report: Chesapeake engaged in price fixing on land (bizjournals.com)
The head of Chesapeake Energy, one of the biggest U.S. natural gas drillers, does not want the country to ship its huge gas reserves overseas, despite agreeing to supply fuel for a proposed export project.
Record U.S. natural gas production has sparked a debate about whether the resource should be used more at home, potentially for wider use in transportation, or shipped abroad to fetch higher prices on the global market.
“I want the right to export natural gas, but I am really hopeful that we never do,” said Chesapeake chief executive Aubrey McClendon during a panel discussion on natural gas vehicles in New York on Wednesday.
A string of rival liquefied natural gas (LNG) export projects have been proposed in the United States over the past year as unconventional gas production has left the country with a century’s worth of cheap supply, evaporating import needs and thinning producers’ profit margins.
Together, the proposed export plants could export the equivalent of more than 10 percent of U.S. gas needs by the end of the decade.
Chesapeake has pledged to supply U.S.-produced gas for the most advanced U.S. project at Sabine Pass in Louisiana, run by Cheniere Energy, which could be online by 2015, pending regulatory approval. Last month Cheniere signed an agreement with LNG shipper BG Group to supply U.S. shale gas to the world.
“When we first announced the Sabine Pass Liquefaction project, Chesapeake stated publicly that they would provide half a billion cubic feet per day of gas to the Sabine Pass facility,” a Cheniere spokeswoman said.
Still, McClendon hopes that there will be enough demand at home for that not to be necessary.
“An LNG export facility wouldn’t be ready for another four years or so,” McClendon said. “I really hope in the next four years that we embrace natural gas for transportation so we don’t need to export it outside the country.”
Despite massive reserves and nascent efforts, the United States is yet to make widespread progress to turn diesel and gasoline engines over to natural gas.
Much depends on legislation in Washington. There is some optimism surrounding the Nat Gas Act, introduced in the Senate on Tuesday, which provides tax incentives to buy natural gas engines, though past efforts of this kind have been slowed and halted by political wrangling.
In the meantime, McClendon is hedging his bets.
“If for some reason this country refuses to use this wonderful fuel…I have to put my gas up for sale to somebody,” he said.
- USA: Cheniere Enters into Contract with Bechtel (mb50.wordpress.com)
- USA: Total Close to Sign Sabine Pass LNG Deal (mb50.wordpress.com)
- USA: Cheniere Enters into Contract with Bechtel (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Lithuania: Cheniere Eyes LNG Exports by 2015 (mb50.wordpress.com)
- USA: Cheniere, BG Ink LNG Sale and Purchase Deal (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Angola: Oil Ministry Says US Will be Main Market for LNG Export (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Willbros Secures Oman LNG Contract (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Australia: All Ichthys Approvals on Track, INPEX Says (mb50.wordpress.com)
If 2008 was the Year of the Shales, 2011 is shaping up to be the Year of Liquids-Rich Plays–and there are still four months to go.
A major recurring theme in second-quarter conference calls was oil companies’ news of positions amassed or initial test wells drilled in new shale and unconventional fields containing oil and natural gas liquids.
Plays such as the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, Mississippi Lime, Lower Smackover/Brown Dense and Utica shales–both in Ohio and to the west in Michigan–are lining up to be the emerging fields of 2012 and 2013, analysts said.
“We’ll see a movement in some of these plays and it’s not going to slow down–if anything, it will be a pretty tight market for services, fracturing crews and pipeline access,” Michael Bodino, head of energy research for Global Hunter Securities, said.
Arguably, the Utica Shale was the showpiece of the quarter, particularly because its cachet resembles that of Northwest Louisiana’s giant Haynesville Shale, which took Wall Street by storm when Chesapeake Energy trumpeted it in March 2008.
Chesapeake again took the lead in showcasing the Utica late last month, relating the news that the play economically “looks similar, but is likely superior to the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas…because of the quality of the rock and location of the asset” near eastern US population centers, CEO Aubrey McClendon said.
Like the Eagle Ford, which stands out as one of the US’ most sizzling shale plays at present, the Utica has oil and “dry” natural gas and “wet gas” (gas liquids) windows, he said.
Jeff Ventura, chief operating officer at Range Resources, which pioneered the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, said his company already has drilled two Utica wells. At least on its acreage, Utica is at the bottom of a pancake stack of three play zones, with the Upper Devonian Shale on top and the Marcellus in the middle. The Upper Devonian shales contain about as much gas in place as the Marcellus zone, Ventura said, adding that the Marcellus gas field has been called one of the US’ largest.
Both Range and Chesapeake also have scored success in Northern Oklahoma’s Mississippi Lime play. “In the past year it has become more clear that we have a major play on our hands,” said McClendon, with Chesapeake holding 1.1 million acres there, running six rigs, aiming for 10 rigs by year-end and 30 to 40 by end-2014 or 2015.
Range’s Ventura suggested the play, found at relatively shallow depths of 5,000-6,000 feet, is also highly profitable; it boasts a 100% rate of return at $100/b oil, and he added that even at $90/b it yields a roughly 80% return. Range, which has completed seven horizontal wells, sees its main near-term activity there as nailing the optimal lateral length and well spacing.
Ventura said liquids make up 70% of a well’s recoverable hydrocarbons. McClendon estimated 415,000 barrels of oil equivalent per well, at an average finding cost to date of roughly $11/b, which he called “very, very attractive results.”
Meanwhile, in its late July conference call, Southwestern Energy CEO Steven Mueller said his company has acquired 460,000 net acres in an unconventional horizontal play targeting the Lower Smackover Brown Dense formation.
“This happens to be almost the exact same number of acres we had when we announced the Fayetteville Shale play back in August 2004,” Mueller said. That news kicked off an industry rush to that gas play, Mueller said.
But having reviewed the results of more than 70 wells that penetrated the Brown Dense zone, “we currently have more data about [it] than we had on the Fayetteville Shale when it was announced,” he said.
Mueller said the Brown Dense is an oil reservoir in Northern Louisiana and Southern Arkansas, at 8,000-11,000 foot depths and below the Haynesville Shale which is also a gas play. Brown Dense is “extensive over a large area and ranges in thickness from 300 to 530 feet,” he said.
Southwestern plans its first Smackover/Brown Dense well in Columbia County Arkansas, before the end of September, with a second well later in the year in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana.
In addition, Goodrich Petroleum in early August said it had begun drilling the Buda Lime, beneath the Eagle Ford. The small company averaged a respectable 900 boe/d oil from those wells, against 800 boe/d from its 11 Eagle Ford wells so far.
Rob Turnham, Goodrich chief operating officer, also touted the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, along the horizontal Mississippi-Louisiana border, where both Encana and Devon Energy have large positions and are drilling wells. Tuscaloosa “has a lot of similarities to the Eagle Ford–similar permeability and porosity” of the rocks, he said. Goodrich will begin drilling in early 2012.
He said nine older wells in the play have flowed oil but “none of them have been properly stimulated.” If the vertical wells were to be taken horizontally several thousand feet, fractured with current technology, and properly stimulated, “we’re very optimistic,” said Turnham.–Starr Spencer in Houston