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Oil's Contractors Are Contracting, and That's Good

Liam Denning

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Kinder Morgan Inc. just issued the thrilling news that it plans to grow profits by 0% this year. That counts as a win in energy in 2020.

The pipelines giant was something of a bellwether in late 2015 when it slashed its dividend and soon after did the same to its growth plans. This process reached a logical conclusion of sorts in the full year results presented Wednesday evening. After the usual bullish remarks about natural gas, management outlined a plan to keep spending tight so it could bump the divided up on flat Ebitda. Having chipped away at its debts over the past four years or so, several asset sales allowed leverage to dip a bit further. And even as the project backlog drifted lower, any scurrilous talk of M&A on the earnings call was quashed swiftly.

This is your U.S. energy playbook for the foreseeable future, folks.

Kinder isn't a bellwether this time; the shrinkage doctrine is cropping up all over. We've just been treated to a set of results from the big oilfield services companies best described as managed retreat. Like Kinder Morgan's gas commentary, Schlumberger Ltd. made its customarily upbeat remarks about the outlook for international drilling activity on its own earnings call last week. Yet the action items are largely a set of retrenchments: job cuts, technology franchising (read: asset-light) and exiting or potentially exiting commoditized businesses such as artificial lift, fracking equipment and drilling tools. Similarly, Halliburton Co. touted growth prospects overseas, while carrying out “initial personnel reductions and real estate rationalization” as its core U.S. land business continues to suffer. Both companies are back to trading at discounts last seen when the oil crash was only just getting underway.

The contractors are taking their lead from their clients. Both ConocoPhillips and Chevron Corp. closed out 2019 with declarations of restraint; one via a strategy presentation and the other with a big write-down. Similarly, the shortest run of year-over-year job gains in the U.S. upstream business since 2002 effectively ended in November (see this). It’s tough for even this habitually upbeat industry to talk a big game when (a) natural gas prices are comatose in the middle of JANUARY and (b) despite a year’s worth of Middle East drama having been crammed into just a few weeks, oil futures are lower now than they were after that last supposed game-changer in Saudi Arabia back in September:

Evident caution on the part of oil and gas enablers such as pipeline operators and rig contractors is a clear sign the mantra of reducing capital intensity is taking over. After a decade like the one just gone, with many billions wasted in pursuit of sheer market share, that is no bad thing. Plus, with efforts to address climate change — itself essentially a war on waste — this decade brings added pressure to run an extraordinarily tight ship.

Old habits die hard, and not everyone gets it. But with E&P earnings season about to kick off, it is worth noting that Kinder Morgan, with guidance roughly as exciting as cocktail hour at a pipelines conference, leads the energy sector on Thursday morning.

To contact the author of this story: Liam Denning at ldenning1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Gongloff at mgongloff1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy, mining and commodities. He previously was editor of the Wall Street Journal's Heard on the Street column and wrote for the Financial Times' Lex column. He was also an investment banker.

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