(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Broad new horizons in key markets are opening for the world’s energy companies. Don’t expect to see a land rush any time soon.
China will allow all large domestic and foreign companies to apply for oil and gas exploration licenses that were previously only open to state-owned enterprises, the country’s resources ministry said at a briefing Thursday. In India, regulators will also let private and international companies bid for a group of coal blocks it’s putting up for auction starting this month, the country’s coal and mines minister Pralhad Joshi said this week, chipping away at a near-monopoly enjoyed by state-controlled Coal India Ltd.
A decade or so ago, such announcements might have caused international energy companies to salivate with excitement. All the fear back then was that state-owned giants like Saudi Arabian Oil Co. and Petroleos de Venezuela SA controlled all the viable assets to fuel a coming era of ever-increasing fossil fuel demand, leaving listed businesses running out of reserves. How things have changed.
For one thing, it’s national governments rather than independent companies that are now worried about supply shortages. China’s domestic oil production has fallen about 10% since peaking five years ago. India’s coal output is still edging up, but not fast enough to meet demand: Net imports have accounted for about a quarter of consumption in recent years, up from 10% a decade ago.
Meanwhile, energy companies are awash with supply. The revolution in fracking means that America’s shale patch would count as one of the world’s top three oil producers if considered on its own. It briefly overtook Saudi Arabia for the number two spot behind Russia after an attack on the Gulf country’s oil facilities in September.
Conventional oil and gas discoveries are booming, too, hitting a four-year high of 12.2 billion barrels of oil equivalent last year, according to consultancy Rystad Energy AS. Storied oil majors Exxon Mobil Corp., Total SA, BP Plc and Eni SpA chalked up some of the year’s best discoveries. On the demand side, consumption of petroleum may peak as soon as a decade from now, well within the lifetime of most conventional oilfields.
As a result, the interests of fossil fuel producers and the energy-hungry governments seeking to attract them are fundamentally opposed. Beijing and New Delhi ultimately want to boost domestic output at all costs, and hope that foreign businesses can sprinkle some innovative magic that local giants can’t muster. International oil companies, on the other hand, are ruing a decade when they chased barrels to the exclusion of all else. They’re now much more focused on developing only the most profitable fields, wherever they’re to be found.
It’s probably unfair to characterize the state-owned Chinese and Indian companies as lazy behemoths, too. PetroChina Co.’s capital spending is bigger than that of Exxon Mobil and BP put together, and about half the wells it drills each year are in the Changqing field, where most new development is in difficult formations similar to those in the U.S. shale patch. Coal India, likewise, is hampered by the fact that most of the country’s coal is high in ash and low in energy, and dependent on a creaky rail network to make it to power stations.
The problem, instead, is that the remorseless facts of poor geology make it nearly impossible to develop domestic reserves profitably, especially when government targets are driving state-owned companies to increase output with little regard for cost.
Take the Qingcheng field, a corner of the Changqing deposit that counts as PetroChina’s largest single shale find. Even after recent efforts to drive down costs, the internal rate of return for Qingcheng wells is now only 8% to 9%, Cathy Chan, an analyst at CCB International Holdings Ltd., wrote in an October note.
It’s fanciful to think this would tempt foreign investors. Such returns barely cover PetroChina’s own cost of capital. In Texas’s Permian basin, comparably low returns were last seen in early 2016, when the local fracking industry was on the brink of collapse. IRRs of 20% to 40% are typical for unconventional petroleum in the U.S. Given the substantial political risks that come from operating in China these days, it’s very hard to see the attraction here for international energy businesses.
The best path to energy security for China and India is to encourage their own renewable energy and electrified transport industries — an approach that will improve the health of their populations, reduce climate risks, and leave them far less dependent on imported fuels. That’s a much better idea than wasting money trying to get blood from a stone, or hoping that clever foreigners will be able to find hidden deposits where local talent has failed.
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David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.
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