The shale boom that sent natural-gas prices to a 10-year low is being felt for the first time in the oil markets.
Williams Partners LP (WPZ:US) joined Marathon Oil Corp. (MRO:US) and Devon Energy Corp. (DVN:US) yesterday in blaming a glut of propane and related products for lower profits in the second quarter. Spectra Energy Corp. (SE:US) and Apache Corp. (APA:US) followed suit today. Next week more companies are expected to show the effects of falling prices for so-called natural-gas liquids used in backyard barbecues and motor fuels as producer Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK:US) and Targa Resources Partners LP (NGLS:US), a pipeline and storage company whose trading symbol is NGLS, release earnings.
The “NGL bloodbath,” as it was dubbed by Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. last month, is rippling across the oil and gas industry as explorers cut production and reduce cash flow projections, service companies forecast lower demand for drilling rigs, and pipeline partnerships suffer falling revenue for their gas liquids processing plants. The price of an ethane- propane NGL mix was down 58 percent yesterday from a high in January, outpacing the 19 percent drop in crude from a February peak.
“The same thing is now happening to liquids that happened to natural gas itself,” said James Williams, an energy economist at WTRG Economics in London, Arkansas. “We now have too much. We have an oversupply, so it’s depressing the price.”
U.S. energy producers had counted on more lucrative oil and gas liquids to lift profits as the price of gas in New York tumbled earlier this year to an intraday low (NG1:US) of $1.902 in April. As companies drilled for more liquids, the same oversupplies that gutted gas prices began to deflate NGLs.
Gas liquids are a heavier, or “wetter” component produced along with natural gas, and can include ethane, propane, butane, isobutane and natural gasoline. Gas liquids supply from the Rocky Mountain region of the U.S. has increased at a 47 percent compound annual growth rate since 2006, when explorers first started seeking to add more liquids to production, Tudor Pickering said in a July 12 report.
With demand staying flat while supplies rose, the average price of a mixture of ethane and propane plunged 53 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Williams, which gathers and processes gas from the Gulf of Mexico to Wyoming, said its net income fell to 29 cents per unit from 91 cents in the same quarter of 2011.
“Our earnings were negatively affected by a rapid, significant decline in NGL prices,” Alan Armstrong, chief executive officer of parent Williams Cos. (WMB:US) said in a statement. The warm winter and downtime at chemical plants that consume NGLs were the main drivers of the decrease, he said.
Pipeline companies Targa and Enbridge Energy Partners LP (EEP:US), both based in Houston, which process gas to separate NGLs, warned of lower earnings in part because of the collapse of liquids prices. Both companies get revenue by keeping and selling a portion of the liquids they produce at their gas- processing plants, according to T.J. Schultz, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets.
Enterprise Products Partners LP (EPD:US), the second biggest U.S. pipeline operator, is moving away from that practice in favor of charging a flat fee for processing, Chief Executive Officer Mike Creel said in a conference call yesterday. The company claimed 96,000 barrels a day of NGLs in the second quarter compared to 120,000 a year earlier.
Rapidly falling gas liquids prices and NGL plant shutdowns contributed to earnings declines at Devon, which sold NGLs for an average of $31.42 a barrel in the second quarter, 26 percent less than a year earlier. Oklahoma City-based Devon now is moving some of its drilling rigs away from gas and gas liquids fields to look for oil, Chief Executive Officer John Richels said on a conference call.
Marathon, based in Houston, cut its rig count in Oklahoma’s Anadarko Woodford formation to two from six because of lower NGL prices, which were to blame in part for a 5.8 percent decline in second-quarter net income from the first quarter, the company said yesterday.
Apache’s net income dropped 72 percent from a year earlier after realizing less than $34 per barrel for NGLs in the second quarter, the company said in a statement. That was less than the $38 that Eliot Javanmardi, an analyst at Capital One Southcoast in New Orleans, estimated.
Spectra’s profit fell 25% to 33 cents per share, and low NGL prices will affect its earnings for the rest of 2012, according to the company’s statement today.
Because NGLs comprise about 60 percent of Chesapeake’s overall liquids production, lower prices will have a significant impact on the Oklahoma City-based company when it reports earnings Aug. 6, said Mark Hanson, an analyst at Morningstar Investor Service in Chicago.
“There’s lots of moving pieces with Chesapeake but we’ll probably see a downward revision for operating cash flow this year” as a result of falling NGL prices, Hanson said in a telephone interview. The negative effects will extend into the rest of 2012 if the NGL market continues to deteriorate and Chesapeake accelerates production of those commodities, he said.
Service companies also felt the effect as cutbacks trickled down to drilling operations. Nabors Industries Ltd. (NBR:US), the world’s largest provider of land drilling rigs, said the market deteriorated sharply toward the end of the second quarter.
“Operators are even more reluctant to sign contract extensions of meaningful length since both cash flow and drilling budgets are declining,” Tony Petrello, chief executive officer, said on a conference call.
In some areas, Houston-based Baker Hughes Inc. (BHI:US), an energy service provider, is seeing its own pricing pressured by the declines.
“I characterize it as a knife fight right now in terms of pricing,” Martin Craighead, chief executive officer at Baker Hughes, said July 20 on a conference call.
There may be some rebound in pricing in the second half of the year as winter temperatures trigger more demand for the heating fuel propane and a ramp-up in exports provides a bigger market for ethane, according to Tudor Pickering analyst Bradley Olsen.
Ethane supply will likely outpace incremental demand increases until new chemical plants that use the liquids as raw materials for their products come on line around the middle of the decade, Devon’s Richels said.
“As long as natural gas prices remain low, we’d expect ethane prices also to be weak in this period,” he said.
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