Producing More, Profiting Less: Energy Company Earnings Suffer in the Gas Glut Era

They’re producing more but profiting less.

Energy company earnings season is drawing to a close on Friday, and the takeaways from a volatile, eventful quarter for some of the largest European and U.S. oil giants are in. Like most other sectors, oil and gas companies have felt the jitters of a ramping trade war, slowing economic growth, and some industry specific strains: like really cheap natural gas prices.

Meanwhile, with large parts of North America and Europe hitting record summer temperatures in recent weeks, know this: the shale boom is still on, and oil and gas production jumped nearly across the board in the quarter to June.

Here are some highlights:

1. Profits were (largely) down

Faced with a grab-bag of economic strains this quarter, many of the largest oil companies saw their profits sink: Exxon Mobil—which reported Friday—said earnings dropped by 21% in the second quarter of 2019. Meanwhile Shell’s earnings sunk 26% to a 30-month low, while earnings also fell at France’s Total and Norway’s Equinor.

But the picture wasn’t entirely one-note: BP’s earnings were essentially flat, and Chevron’s rose 27%, helped by a hefty “break-up” fee the company received from Anadarko after a deal to acquire that company fell through. (Anadarko went with Occidental.)

2. Even as production rose…

Those dips in profit came despite rising production from most of the firms. Chevron’s production rose 9%, to more than 3 million barrels a day, due to increased output in Texas’ Permian Basin, the heart of the shale oil boom. Exxon’s production rose 7% from the same quarter a year ago, while BP’s was up 7%, Shell 4%, and Total 9%.

Every company has a different portfolio, but Chevron’s gains were indicative of what’s been behind the rise in production in the industry: the shale boom is still going strong in Texas and the Gulf of Mexico, years after it turned the U.S. from a net importer to one of the world’s exporting heavyweights. At the same time, there were signs of production overkill: on Thursday, shale producer Concho Resources saw its stock fall after it said its output had not met expectations—it had put its drills too close together.

3. Demand can’t keep up (plus, there’s a trade war)

The drop in profit appeared to have a few common culprits: first and foremost, a huge glut in natural gas. That’s largely because the U.S. has produced so much, in such a short period of time, while new export projects are also coming online—including in Papua New Guinea. In fact, in some areas—like Western Europe—gas became so cheap that U.S. cargoes were selling at a loss.

There were other signs of oversupply, too: in the second quarter, crude prices sunk—even as Venezuelan and Iranian oil largely left the market due to sanctions, and geopolitical jitters around the Strait of Hormuz prompted fears that the world’s most important oil chokepoint could be disrupted.

Meanwhile, refined chemicals weren’t producing as much cash as expected, either—Shell cited the U.S.-China trade war as having a “dramatic” impact on demand for the petrochemicals used to make plastics, according to its CEO.

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