OPINION: In the boom and bust world of unconventional oil and gas drilling, US independents have overcome several obstacles, from the inherent inefficiencies of producing in shales or tight formations to surviving a pair of price collapses.
But they may have run up against something they can’t overcome: shareholder sentiment that has become fixated on preserving returns through capital discipline.
A decade ago, shale drillers were spending money like drunken sailors on shore leave. Their goal was to produce as much oil and gas as possible, and neither debt nor weak shareholder returns was going to restrain them
In the second half of 2017 and much of 2018, many of those shareholders decided they had had enough, sending share prices into a tailspin.
The message was received, and the virtues of capital discipline and building shareholder returns have become a mantra.
Pioneer Natural Resources chief executive Scott Sheffield made it clear that he sees little change in the mood, when he told last month's Barclays CEO Energy-Power Conference that he expects his peers to keep the disciplined approach.
He believes this will be the case regardless of whether Brent crude keeps on rising to $100, because, in the new environment, shareholders are making it clear that they will punish companies that lurch towards growth.
His story illustrates another trend, in which acquisitions — in this case Parsley Energy and DoublePoint Energy — do not go down well with shareholders.
Pioneer's own share price is finally bouncing back, but Sheffield made it clear that the company is not likely to go shopping again any time soon.
We are unlikely to return to a time when US shale could challenge Saudi Arabia for the role of swing producer, able to simply ratchet up the drilling when prices are high and back off when demand slackened.
For the time being, the winners here are the shareholders of cash-rich independents, and the losers are millions of motorists who still put gasoline in their cars.
(This is an Upstream opinion article.)