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Oil Industry Turns to Mergers and Acquisitions to Survive

HOUSTON — The once mighty oil and gas industry is flailing, desperately trying to survive a pandemic that has sharply reduced demand for its products.

Most companies have cut back drilling, laid off workers and written off assets. Now some are seeking out merger and acquisition targets to reduce costs. ConocoPhillips announced on Monday that it was acquiring Concho Resources for $9.7 billion, the biggest deal in the industry since oil prices collapsed in March.

The acquisition, days after the completion of Chevron’s takeover of Noble Energy, would create one of the country’s biggest shale drillers and signals an accelerating industry consolidation as oil prices languish around $40 a barrel, just above the levels many businesses need to break even. Just last month Devon Energy said it would buy WPX Energy for $2.6 billion.

But many investors are not sure such deal making will be enough to protect the industry from a sharp decline. The share prices of ConocoPhillips and Concho closed down by about 3 percent on Monday. The big problem is that the fortunes of oil companies are fundamentally tied to oil and natural gas prices, which remain stubbornly low. Few experts expect a full recovery of oil demand before 2022, and some analysts have gone so far as to declare that oil demand might have peaked in 2019 and could slide in the years to come as the popularity of electric cars grows.

“There’s a lot more red ink than there is black gold,” said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research, who periodically advises the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. “Companies are trying to hunker down and weather the storm. Most people don’t think the oil price will recover for a couple of years.”

More than 50 North American oil and gas companies with debts totaling more than $50 billion have sought bankruptcy protection this year. Among the casualties was Chesapeake Energy, a shale pioneer based in Oklahoma City. More failures could come in the next two years as companies are required to repay tens of billions of dollars in debt.

Oil companies are facing daunting uncertainties, particularly as concerns over climate change mount and governments impose tougher regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Small companies fear a crackdown on methane leaks and tightening regulations, especially if former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. becomes president and Democrats take control of the Senate.

European oil companies have already begun pivoting away from oil and gas, plotting investments in renewable energy like wind and solar to attract new investors. While those companies have had limited success so far, American companies have for the most part stuck with their traditional businesses. They have adapted to low oil and gas prices by slashing investments by 30 percent or more. The oil and gas rig count has dropped by 569 since last fall, to only 282 operating across the country.

Oil companies are hoarding cash and renegotiating contracts with service companies that drill and complete wells. Rig rental rates are down roughly 10 percent, pressuring the companies that do the field work. More than 100,000 American oil workers have lost their jobs in recent months.

ConocoPhillips, the largest American independent oil company, has been something of an outlier, recently raising its dividend and buying back shares. Nevertheless, ConocoPhillips’s stock price has dropped by roughly half so far this year.

The company is a major producer in the Bakken shale field of North Dakota and the Eagle Ford shale field in South Texas. By acquiring Concho, it will become a major player in the world’s most lucrative shale field, the Permian Basin, which straddles West Texas and New Mexico.

With Concho’s 550,000 acres in the Permian, ConocoPhillips will more than triple its 170,000-acre position in the basin, which became the world’s most productive oil field last year.

Concho is little known outside Texas but became a major oil producer after it bought RSP Permian for $9.5 billion in 2018. Concho produced more than 300,000 barrels in the second quarter.

“Together ConocoPhillips and Concho will have unmatched scale and quality,” said Ryan M. Lance, ConocoPhillips’s chairman and chief executive, referring to their joint balance sheet, resource reserves and personnel.

The deal would help make ConocoPhillips one of the largest players in the Permian, putting it in the same league as companies that are much bigger than it over all.

“The combination is remarkable,” said Robert Clarke, a vice president and oil analyst at Wood Mackenzie, a research and consulting firm. “Just in regards to scale, ConocoPhillips is adding enough Permian production to nip at the heels of ExxonMobil’s massive program.”

As the shale industry grew over the last decade or so, many smaller companies poured billions of dollars into the Permian and other parts of the country. Now, the process appears to be headed in the opposite direction as the industry retrenches and becomes smaller.

Investment in U.S. shale oil has dropped to an estimated $45 billion this year from roughly $100 billion annually in 2018 and 2019, according to the International Energy Agency. In its annual report released this month, the Paris-based organization said a shakeout was underway.

“The influence of large players is set to grow as acreage is consolidated by larger industry players, and the focus on growth is set to be supplanted over time by a focus on returns,” the report said. “The exuberance and breakneck growth of the early years may be replaced by something a little steadier.”

American oil production fell to 11.2 million barrels a day in September from 13 million at the beginning of the year. The Energy Department expects production to fall an additional 200,000 barrels a day by mid-2021 as companies drill fewer new wells to replace older ones.

The industry has no choice but to cut back. Americans drove 12.3 percent fewer miles in August than they did a year earlier, according to the Transportation Department.

Globally, daily oil consumption was down more than 6 percent in September from a year earlier, according to the Energy Department. Oil production continues to outpace demand, keeping inventory levels high and prices low.

And the pandemic is not yet under control in many parts of the world. If sustained, the recent increase in coronavirus infections in the United States, Europe and elsewhere could reduce demand for oil and gas even further in the coming months.

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Chevron’s Purchase Could Unlock Israel’s Natural Gas Bonanza

Chevron, the American oil giant, wrapped up the acquisition on Monday of a relatively small Houston-based company called Noble Energy, paying about $4 billion.

Until recently, the deal would have been unlikely, if not unthinkable — because what distinguishes Noble is the large natural gas business it has built in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, especially in Israel, an area that major oil companies had until now avoided.

Chevron’s move is the latest milestone in a remarkable shift in perceptions about a relatively new region for the petroleum industry in the eastern Mediterranean. Once a dead sea for the oil industry, this area, reaching from the Nile Delta in Egypt up to Israel and Lebanon and around Cyprus, has come alive with exploration vessels, drilling rigs and production platforms in recent years thanks to a series of large natural gas discoveries.

Those finds are drawing major oil companies into the area, attracted not only by the prospect of further undiscovered resources but by improving relations between Israel and its former foes Egypt and Jordan.

“This is an area that looks as if it could have the resource quality and the scale to become a pretty significant energy province,” said Mike Wirth, Chevron’s chief executive, in an interview.

International oil giants previously steered clear of Israel, partly, it has been assumed, to avoid alienating large Arab oil producers like Saudi Arabia. The move by Chevron, which this week edged ahead of Exxon Mobil to become America’s largest oil company by market value, indicates that the days when Persian Gulf states bristle about business with Israel may be over. Recently, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain established relations with Israel with apparent Saudi blessing.

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Credit…Toru Hanai/Reuters

“It is opening up the Israeli market to the world,” Nati Birenboim, a former Israeli energy official who is now a consultant, said of Chevron’s arrival. “Everyone knows when they bought Noble, they bought Israel.”

There are no guarantees that recent progress on energy and other fronts won’t face setbacks. Longstanding differences between Israel and its neighbors are not forgotten; expansionist moves by Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to claim some of the underwater riches have alarmed its NATO allies and recently prompted the United States to deploy a massive Navy ship at a base it shares with Greece.

More than 20 years ago, Noble helped put the region on the energy industry’s map. Delek Drilling, an Israeli firm, brought the company to Israel to hunt for petroleum. The partnership, which began in 1999, has produced major natural gas finds that not only reduced Israel’s dependence on imported coal and oil but turned Israel — with some helpful nudging from American diplomats — into an exporter with long-term contracts worth an estimated $25 billion to help power the neighboring economies of Jordan and Egypt.

“I think what Chevron sees is the opportunity” to buy into “massive natural gas resources located in the center of a region with a lot of demand,” said Yossi Abu, Delek’s chief executive and now Chevron’s partner, in an interview.

Along with the drilling sites off the coast of Israel, a major discovery called the Zohr gas field, found by the Italian energy company Eni in Egyptian waters in 2015, has drawn development in the area. Total, the French oil firm, and Eni have even extended the hunt into the sea off strife-torn Lebanon — although the first well the partners drilled, this year, turned out to be a dry hole.

From a geological point of view, the eastern Mediterranean has what oil giants like Chevron are looking for: very large volumes of gas, which many in the industry view as likely to have a better future than oil as climate change concerns grow.

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Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

“It is a very attractive region,” said Wayne Ackerman, a former executive at Royal Dutch Shell and an adviser on gas to Saudi Aramco, who has studied the area’s geology. “I am convinced there will be more discoveries there,” added Mr. Ackerman, who now heads gas research at Rapidan Energy Group, a consulting firm.

The energy business has been shaken by plummeting demand during the coronavirus pandemic and worries about the viability of fossil fuels. But the resources that these big fields hold are unlikely to be left in the ground, because they are already earning substantial revenues by powering the economies of Israel and its neighbors. Some of the fields in the region, including the largest Israeli field, in which Chevron now holds a nearly 40 percent stake, could also be expanded relatively cheaply for exports.

“Gas is an important part of any future energy transition scenario,” Mr. Wirth said. “Proximity to growing markets with demand is a real advantage for a gas resource.”

What Chevron is buying in Noble — very cheaply, because Noble’s shares had been pummeled by the pandemic and worries about the company’s high debt and the industry’s future — is a combination of a profitable regional gas business and the opportunity to expand to serve markets farther afield. Noble also has substantial shale-drilling properties in the United States and some production in Equatorial Guinea in central West Africa.

Mr. Abu of Delek said he thought the American company would bring the capital, technology and marketing clout to allow further expansion of the gas fields as well as new exploration. Delek and Noble, along with Royal Dutch Shell, also share a large find off Cyprus, called Aphrodite, that they have so far not succeeded in developing.

The riches lurking beneath the region’s waters have brought their share of problems.

Turkey has so far been unable to benefit from the prospecting because the gas fields are in zones claimed by other countries under the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention. It has responded by muscle-flexing: In recent months, Mr. Erdogan has sent vessels to drill in waters around Cyprus, including in territory that the island’s government has already awarded to companies like Eni and Total.

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Credit…Baz Ratner/Reuters

“It’s quite a novel way of applying pressure,” said Robert Morris, an analyst at Wood Mackenzie, an energy research firm.

Tensions rose in August when a Greek warship collided with a Turkish warship that was escorting a survey vessel. Greece called it an accident; Turkey described it as a provocation. France, Greece, Cyprus and Italy later took part in military exercises involving ships and planes off the Cypriot coast.

Turkey is not a signatory to the Law of the Sea, and says its neighbors have divided the waters unfairly.

“Their aim,” Mr. Erdogan said in a recent magazine interview, “was to confine our country — which has the longest shore in the Mediterranean — to coastline where only fishing with a rod is possible.”

Turkey’s actions have slowed exploration work around Cyprus — as has the coronavirus pandemic.

The wider region, though, is likely to continue to attract interest and investment, analysts say.

“There are just a few places in the world where you can get into large gas assets,” said Gerald Kepes, an independent energy consultant who has worked in Egypt. “These are what big companies are made for.”

Despite Turkey’s efforts, the lure of gaining access to relatively cheap energy has pushed former foes like Egypt, Israel and Jordan more toward cooperation than discord.

Mr. Wirth said recent developments suggested that the region was an “area where we can expect to see regional ties improve in the coming years,” a trend likely to promote economic growth and, consequently, demand for gas.

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Credit…Amir Cohen/Reuters

If such trends continue, there is even the possibility of exporting natural gas to countries in the Persian Gulf, like Saudi Arabia, that are rich in oil but poor in gas needed for electric power and industry. There is also a longer-term hope: that gas from the region can help ease Europe’s dependence on energy imports from Russia.

“I think when you’ve got a large, low-cost resource base like this proximate to large economies, we will find ways to move the gas to market in a manner that’s competitive,” Mr. Wirth said on a call with analysts.

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