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Big Oil Heads Back Home

Energy companies are shifting their focus away from the Middle East and toward the West—with profound implications for the companies, global politics and consumers

DECEMBER 5, 2011


Big Oil is redrawing the energy map.

For decades, its main stomping grounds were in the developing world—exotic locales like the Persian Gulf and the desert sands of North Africa, the Niger Delta and the Caspian Sea. But in recent years, that geographical focus has undergone a radical change. Western energy giants are increasingly hunting for supplies in rich, developed countries—a shift that could have profound implications for the industry, global politics and consumers.

Driving the change is the boom in unconventionals—the tough kinds of hydrocarbons like shale gas and oil sands that were once considered too difficult and expensive to extract and are now being exploited on an unprecedented scale from Australia to Canada.

The U.S. is at the forefront of the unconventionals revolution. By 2020, shale sources will make up about a third of total U.S. oil and gas production, according to PFC Energy, a Washington-based consultancy. By that time, the U.S. will be the top global oil and gas producer, surpassing Russia and Saudi Arabia, PFC predicts.

That could have far-reaching ramifications for the politics of oil, potentially shifting power away from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries toward the Western hemisphere. With more crude being produced in North America, there’s less likelihood of Middle Eastern politics causing supply shocks that drive up gasoline prices. Consumers could also benefit from lower electricity prices, as power plants switch from coal to cheap and plentiful natural gas.

And the change is reshaping the oil companies themselves, as they reallocate their vast resources to new areas and new kinds of fuel. Working in the rich world—with its more predictable taxes and investor-friendly policies—removes some of the risks about the big oil companies that worry investors, making them less vulnerable to the resource nationalism of petrostates like Russia and Venezuela.

“A company like Exxon Mobil can eliminate the technological risk” of developing unconventionals, says Amy Myers Jaffe, senior energy adviser at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “But it can’t eliminate the risk of a Vladimir Putin or a Hugo Chavez.”

This new way of looking at risk is at the heart of the transformation. International oil companies traditionally face a choice: They can either invest in oil that is easy to produce but located in politically volatile countries. Or they can seek opportunities in stable countries where the oil is hard to extract, requiring complex and expensive production techniques.

Now, in a sense, the choice has been made for them. Big onshore fields in the world’s most prolific hydrocarbon provinces are increasingly the preserve of national oil companies, state-owned behemoths like Saudi Aramco and Russia’s OAO Rosneft and OAO Gazprom. For foreign majors like Royal Dutch Shell PLC and BP PLC, their former heartlands in the Gulf sands are now largely off-limits.

Shut out of the Middle East, they have responded with a huge push into new areas, both geographic and technological. Over the past few decades, they have built vast plants to produce liquefied natural gas, or LNG. They have drilled for oil in ever-deeper waters, ever farther offshore. They have worked out how to squeeze oil from the tar sands of Alberta. And they have deployed technologies like hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and horizontal drilling to produce gas from shale rock.

Wood Mackenzie, an oil consultancy in Edinburgh, says that more than half of the international oil companies’ long-term capital investments are now going into these four “resource themes”—a huge shift, considering how marginal the companies once considered them.

There are also drawbacks to the new focus on nontraditional kinds of hydrocarbons. Environmentalists strongly oppose shale-gas extraction due to fears that fracking may contaminate water supplies, the oil-sands industry because it is energy-intensive and dirty, and deep-water drilling because of the risk of oil spills like last year’s Gulf of Mexico disaster.

There are financial considerations, too. While conventional assets are relatively easy to develop and historically have offered good returns, projects in some more technically difficult sectors—like deep-water and LNG—typically take longer to bring on-stream, and are higher cost, meaning returns are lower.

But there is an upside for the majors. “The silver lining is the shape of the profile of these projects, which is different than conventional ones,” says Simon Flowers, head of corporate analysis at Wood Mackenzie. LNG ventures, for example, can deliver contract levels of gas at a steady rate over 20 years. “So the returns may be lower, but overall you have a more dependable cash-flow stream,” he says.

By pursuing these nontraditional fuels, the oil companies are committing themselves ever more deeply to the wealthy nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Wood Mackenzie says $1.7 trillion of future value for all the world’s oil companies—52% of the total—is in North America, Europe and Australia. The consultancy has identified a “significant westward shift” in oil-industry investment, away from traditional areas like North Africa and the Middle East “towards the Brazilian offshore, deepwater oil in the Gulf of Mexico and West Africa and unconventional oil and gas in North America.” And then there’s Australia, far out east, “which is in the early stages of a spectacular growth phase.”

Consider Shell. Seven years ago, the oil giant, synonymous with turbulent hot spots like Nigeria, decided to shift resources to more-developed nations that offered a friendly environment for investors and predictable tax regimes. Shell used to split spending on the upstream—the basic business of exploring for and producing oil and gas—roughly 50/50 between nations in the OECD and those outside of it. It’s now 70/30 in favor of the OECD, with the bulk going to Canada, Australia and the U.S.

“The risks in OECD are technical, but they’re easier to manage than political risk,” says Simon Henry, Shell’s chief financial officer. “In the OECD, you have more control of your operations.”

With the new turf comes a new focus: Shell will soon be producing more natural gas than oil. That might have scared investors a decade or two ago. But with gas demand set to grow strongly, especially in Asia, the future for gas-focused companies is looking increasingly rosy—especially after the Fukushima disaster, which prompted a rethinking of nuclear power in Japan and elsewhere.

Entrenching Its Position

Like Shell, Exxon Mobil Corp. is entrenching its position in the Americas, home to just over half its resource base. Its unconventional resources have grown by almost 90% over the past five years to 35 billion oil-equivalent barrels—partly thanks to its 2010 acquisition of XTO Energy, a big shale-gas player. Exxon’s U.S. unconventional production alone is expected to double over the next decade.

Some giants are looking further afield. Chevron Corp.’s three focus areas—the parts of the world that account for the bulk of its exploration budget—are the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, offshore West Africa and the waters off western Australia.

In particular, the company has staked out a huge position in Australian natural gas; its Gorgon LNG project in Australia is one of the world’s largest. The push is based on expectations of surging demand for the fuel in Asia, largely in China, which wants to improve air quality in its heavily polluted cities by switching from coal to gas in power generation and running more commercial vehicles and buses on natural gas.

It “wasn’t a conscious decision” to move into the OECD, says Jay Pryor, head of business development at Chevron. The company doesn’t decide what projects to pursue based on where they are in the world, but on the quality of the resource, the commercial terms and the geopolitical risk. “The best rocks with the best terms are going to get the quickest investment,” he says. Money has flowed into the U.S. and Australia because they offer the best incentives to oil companies, he says.

In recent years, Chevron has also expanded into another promising part of the OECD—Europe, which some estimates suggest has shale-gas reserves comparable to those in the U.S. Chevron has picked up millions of acres of land in Poland and Romania, where it will soon be drilling for shale gas. That’s part of a wider trend: Dozens of companies are now exporting to Europe technologies used to open up shale deposits in the U.S.

Holding Back

Not all oil companies have piled into unconventionals the way Shell and Chevron have. BP, for one, has far fewer investments in tar sands and shale gas than its peers, though it has an unrivaled position in deep-water oil. That means it has less of a presence in the OECD than Shell: Its biggest projects are in poorer countries like Angola, Azerbaijan and Russia, and in recent years it has won a string of licenses and contracts in India, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.

Yet even BP has been bolstering its position in the OECD. It said recently it was pressing ahead with a £4.5 billion ($7 billion) investment in the North Sea’s Clair oil field, part of a five-year, £10 billion program.

Still, being in the OECD doesn’t guarantee oil companies an easy ride. Operators in the North Sea were shocked earlier this year when the U.K. government suddenly increased taxes on oil producers. In France, authorities recently banned hydraulic fracturing. And in the U.S., the drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico, imposed after the Deepwater Horizon blowout, threw many of the majors’ plans into disarray.

But still, for the most part, the risks are much greater in the non-OECD. “The majors went to Venezuela and lost their property,” says Ms. Myers Jaffe of the Baker Institute. “They went to Russia and had to whisk their CEO off to a safe house. They went to the Caspian and realized they couldn’t get the oil out. I for one would much rather invest in a company that had 70% of its spending in the OECD.”

Mr. Chazan is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal’s London bureau. He can be reached at [email protected].

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