Higher oil prices are expected to leave the oil industry flush with cash, but the “capital discipline” mantra remains. Market watchers have wondered whether top oil executives would eschew with tight-fisted spending plans once their pockets fattened up again.
“We're laser focused on disciplined free cash flow generation and strong execution. Discipline means, we're not chasing higher prices by ramping up activity,” ConocoPhillips’ CEO Ryan Lance told investors on an earnings call. “By staying disciplined, we generate strong free cash flow, which we then allocate in a shareholder-friendly way.” He went on to stress how committed the company was to boosting the quarterly dividend and share buyback program.
Conoco beat analysts’ estimates, earning $1.36 per share in the third quarter, eight times the earnings from the $0.16 per share a year earlier. Conoco also saw soaring production in the big three shale areas – the Permian, Eagle Ford and Bakken – with output up 48 percent to 313,000 bpd. Lance said that the company still wants to “optimize” its portfolio, which includes $600 million in asset sales.
Conoco’s experience highlights an important industry trend, which is prioritizing profits over growth and size. Lance pointed out that the last time earnings were this good was back in 2014. “Brent was over $100 per barrel and our production was almost 1.5 million barrels of equivalent oil per day. So we're as profitable today as we were then, despite prices being 25% lower and volumes being 20% lower,” Lance told investors. “So bigger isn't always better. That's why we're focused on per share growth and value, not absolute volume growth.”
Norwegian oil company Equinor (formerly Statoil) echoed that sentiment. After laying out the company’s earnings, CFO Lars Christian said “you have to go all the way back to first quarter 2014 to find strong results, and then remember the oil price level above $100.” But again, that doesn’t seem to have triggered a new aggressive approach. “With the E&P industry seeing higher oil and gas prices, now is the time we must show discipline and protect the structural improvements we have achieved over the last four years,” Christian told investors on an earnings call. Equinor, despite the improved performance, announced that it was lowering its capex guidance by $1 billion for the year.