Fracing slump deepens as Schlumberger walks oil `tightrope’

The oil and gas industry may need a significant amount of new investments to offset a looming supply shortage, the head of oil services firm Schlumberger said.

Schlumberger Ltd. expects sales in the U.S. and Canada to drop 15% in the final three months of the year compared with third-quarter 2018, the company said Tuesday.

A trio of factors including a plunge in crude prices, exhausted exploration budgets and maxed-out pipelines in America’s busiest field is prompting oil companies to let go of frack crews.

Companies like Schlumberger that cater to the exploration and production, or upstream, side of the industry are still evolving after the historic slump in crude oil prices two years ago.

“We are seeing a significantly larger drop in activity than we expected, which is leading to a larger drop in pricing than we anticipated,” Patrick Schorn, executive V.P.

That forced major energy companies to cut costs, improve efficiencies and join forces in order to survive. Schlumberger last year formed several ventures with its industry partners.

Extending a six-year relationship, the company in July spent $1.7 billion to acquire a 51 percent stake in Eurasia Drilling Co. Ltd., which holds one of the largest fleets of onshore drilling units globally.

In February, it formed a joint venture partnership with Subsea 7 that built on a 2015 arrangement to coordinate broad offshore development work under one umbrella. On Friday,

Schlumberger reported first quarter earnings of $7.8 billion were up 14 percent from the same period last year, but down 4 percent from the fourth quarter. But after three years of underinvestment, the production side of the equation is showing weakness.

“We continue to see the weakening of the hydraulic fracturing market as temporary, with the expectation of a gradual recovery taking place over the first half of 2019.”

Looking at the global oil market, Chairman and CEO Paal Kibsgaard said the market is more or less balanced between supply and demand, thanks to an effort steered by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

In September, the company said a dearth of new pipeline capacity in the Permian was cooling off the red-hot region, leading to lower-than-expected third-quarter fracing results.

“With Libya and Nigeria producing at near-full capacity, Venezuelan production in free fall, the potential of new sanctions against Iran, and rising geopolitical risks, the only major sources of short-term supply growth to address global production decline and strong worldwide demand are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and the U.S. shale oil industry,” he said in a statement.

Among those, Saudi Arabia is the OPEC member doing the most to curb global production. The United States, meanwhile, is on pace to become the world leader in oil production, overtaking Russia by the end of the year.

While the announcement was a “short-term negative,” the weakness in fracing demand “is already widely known,” Tommy Moll, an analyst at Stephens Inc., wrote in a note to clients.

Kibsgaard, however, said that “significant infrastructure constraints” in the United States may pose future production challenges. Overall activity was supported by business in the Middle East, the North Sea and in Russia, which was offset by a slump in the Latin American and African markets.

“It is, therefore, becoming increasingly likely that the industry will face growing supply challenges over the coming year and a significant increase in global exploration and production investment will be required to minimize the impending deficit,” he said.

The International Monetary Fund said it expects the global economy will grow 3.9 percent, above the estimate of 3.7 percent from October. That should fuel global demand for fossil fuels, though the IMF also warned that protectionist trade policies could undermine growth.

“The price of oil is dominating the headlines in our industry, with a level of volatility that has brought increased uncertainty and decreased visibility,” Schorn said. “Presenting any reliable outlook for our business is like walking a tightrope.”

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