With the winter warmer and drier than previous years, natural gas companies are suffering from depressed prices. However, Raymond James Analyst Luc Mageau identifies liquids-rich companies that can create profits with or without a natural gas price rally. In this exclusive interview with The Energy Report, Mageau explains how to use well payout rates to evaluate a company’s longer-term cash flow.
The Energy Report: With Brent Crude trading at about US$110 per barrel (bbl) and natural gas futures trading at 10-year lows, are you leaning more heavily toward oily names than you did in 2011?
Luc Mageau: Absolutely. In fact, although gas prices have been reduced to around the $2.50 level, it still seems like the picture could get worse before it gets better. Current natural gas storage is at ~3.5 trillion cubic feet (Tcf); that’s a full 0.4 Tcf fuller than an average winter. The reason we have such a glut of gas is the winter has not been co-operating. Basically, we rely on winter to post the bulk of the withdrawals throughout any given year—in the last few years, we have truly been relying on a cold winter to bail us out of the storage glut and we’ve been lucky. On average we normally see ~150-200 billion cubic feet (Bcf) of gas withdrawn per week. With the warm weather we’ve been getting, our average withdrawals from storage have been closer to 80-100 Bcf during the 2011/2012 winter season—that translates to a lot of excess gas. Making matters worse, the weather is not expected to get colder. This means we could be in store for several more weeks of warmer-than-average winter, and given we only have a handful of weeks left in the official “withdrawal season,” we’re running out of time to get back to normal storage.
Historically, when weather fails to bail us out of the glut we have seen production shut-ins to curtail the problem. This time, I think we could be in a slightly different boat—and we can blame the price of oil for that. You see, over the last several years, low natural gas prices have forced gas producers to derive cash flow from other sources. One major source has been incremental extraction of natural gas liquids (NGLs). NGLs are heavier hydrocarbons that are produced in conjunction with natural gas. These products typically trade closer to the oil price. Given the wide discrepancy of oil:gas pricing, NGLs can account for a good chunk of the effective price a gas producer receives. What this means is that even when gas prices are below $2.50, the NGL component now being realized from produced gas is allowing a lot of gas that would have historically been shut in to remain marginally economic, and as such, still on production. So we are seeing less shut-in production than historically, and even if we were to begin shutting in production now we would need nearly 6 Bcf/d to be shut-in for the bulk of 2012 just to get back to normal storage levels—a situation that seems unlikely.
The bottom line is that we continue to expect gas prices will stay depressed and oil prices to continue to thrive and as a result, oil stocks should continue to outperform in general.
TER: Should investors stay away from the gas-heavy names or simply gas-heavy names with liquids-poor content?
LM: Some companies are certainly offering good value today and just because gas prices are low right now doesn’t mean that there are no investable ideas. This being said, dry gas companies (i.e. those with liquids infused plays below 20 bbl/MMcf) are really having their cash flows squeezed right now. Netbacks for companies in this camp have been compressed to mid-single digits and even keeping production levels flat without adding a significant amount of debt is hard. On the other hand, companies with liquids rich gas plays that generate 50 bbl/MMcf or more can boost the realized price of their gas by $4.00/mcf. In fact, given the price of liquids, these companies were already generating in excess of 80% of cash flow from the liquids anyway, so the price of gas does not make that much of an impact on the overall value of the company. So if you are looking for gas exposure, it would probably be safer to look at companies that have exposure to these types of plays. In our coverage universe, Crocotta Energy Inc. (CTA:TSX) is probably the best positioned in this camp.
TER: Let’s talk some more about your coverage universe. Crocotta Energy relies heavily on its liquids-rich assets. Please tell us about how one of those assets, Edson Bluesky, is insulating Crocotta from low gas prices.
LM: Crocotta has been working this asset up for the bulk of 2011 and it has been having very good success. In all it holds ~36,000 acres of land here and the key play so far has been the Bluesky formation. The reason that this play is exciting is because it truly is liquids rich—getting anywhere from 50-100 bbl/MMcf of NGLs. What this means is that even though Crocotta is a gas-weighted producer, at $2.00/mcf gas prices the company can generate netbacks in the mid-$20/barrel oil equivalent (boe) range (compared to low- to mid-single digits for most gas companies). The wells typically cost ~$5.8M, so they are expensive, but considering the amount of wells already drilled on the land base, they are low risk and generate an NPV of over $4M even at $2.00/mcf gas (compared to drier gas wells that would be posting closer to $0-1M NPVs). So the company is still making plenty of money even at these gas prices and it still offers the option on gas prices for the future.
TER: Crocotta exited 2011 with production of about 6,500 boe/day, well ahead of both the company’s exit guidance range and your expectation of about 6,000 boe/day. In fact, those fourth-quarter results brought Crocotta’s 2011 average production up to 3,725 boe/day. What sort of production are you expecting in 2012? And will that be enough to reach your 12-month target of $4.75?
LM: Our numbers have the company exiting 2012 north of 8,000 boe/d—one-third of that production is expected to be oil and liquids. The growth is primarily expected to come from Bluesky liquids rich wells, but we’ve also built in some wells for the company’s Cardium lands at Edson. Late in 2011 the company announced its first Cardium well in the Edson area had an initial production rate of 1,000 boe/d (60% oil). This was previously a formation that we were not anticipating much growth from so there is a significant opportunity for the company to build an oil-weighted portfolio of wells if it can show that this is repeatable—and based on what we’ve seen, we think that’s possible. So our $4.75 target price is premised on the production profile through 2012 and 2013. In fact, for 2013, even at $2.00/mcf gas the company could post cash flow of $0.90/share so it is currently trading at just 3.8x, lower than its gas-weighted peers.
TER: You cover Cequence Energy Ltd. (CQE:TSX), which recently conducted some tests on several new wells at Simonette, Alberta, which is part of the Montney Shale play. One new well tested at 4.8 MMcf/d and 216 bbl/day of condensate over 15 days, which would correspond to a liquids yield of about 45 bbl/MMcf. That means that these wells would be economic even at $2.50 natural gas. What’s your outlook for Cequence given these testing results versus lower than expected oil-equivalent production in 2011?
LM: We believe the recent Montney well results continue to prove that the Simonette area is highly prospective for natural gas production growth. This combined with the additional take-away capacity from the pending Alliance Pipeline connection adds comfort that growth will continue through 2012. You are certainly correct; at 45 bbl/MMcf the company’s Montney wells continue to be economic at $2.50/mcf gas. The unfortunate take-away, however, is that the payout ratios on these wells are expected to be approaching three years. This means that it essentially takes three years for the company to re-coup the money it put into the ground to drill the well, and for a junior company, this makes sustained growth at current prices difficult.
TER: Cequence says that once it connects to the Alliance Pipeline and the Aux Sables liquids extraction facility, which is slated to happen in April 2012, its operating netbacks from Simonette production would reach $30.31/boe. Do those numbers line up with yours and, if so, do you expect that to significantly move the share price?
LM: It all comes down to your view of natural gas prices. We are currently forecasting $3.25/mcf gas for 2012—which sounds more bullish than it actually is. Based on that, we have netbacks in the $18/boe range. If current prices were used instead, i.e. $2.25/mcf gas, netbacks would go to $10/boe.
TER: What’s your 12-month target on Cequence?
LM: We are at $3.50—but again that is premised on $3.25/mcf gas for 2012.
TER: A smaller name that you cover is Renegade Petroleum Ltd. (RPL:TSX.V). Renegade exited 2011 with higher-than-expected average production of 3,625 boe/day, which resulted in year over year growth of 73%. Renegade has set its 2012 production guidance at between 4,000 and 4,200 boe/day and that should result in another year of significant growth. Please tell our readers about why you believe Renegade will reach its production guidance and why you raised your 12-month target to $5.00.
LM: Renegade certainly did have a great year in 2011. After it rolled up its JV partner in the Viking (Petro Uno), it went to work post-breakup and its production growth number definitely reflects that. For 2012 we expect the company is going to put a bit more emphasis on southeast Saskatchewan, though, and we had previously been a bit more conservative on our view of the potential there. We were previously forecasting another break-up season similar to what we saw in 2011—wet and prolonged. But the very unseasonably warm summer, combined with the almost nil snow accumulation in the region is making things look much better than originally expected. Now anything can change—especially the weather—but with a slightly longer drilling season than originally expected, we were able to bring up our production estimate a bit to an average of 4,070 boe/d for 2012, about the midpoint of guidance. With our oil price deck at $100 WTI for 2012, our cash flow estimates and target followed suit.
TER: Things don’t look quite so rosy for Open Range Energy Corp. (ONR:TSX). Most of Open Range’s production base is from natural gas and its production is slated to contract in 2012. Nonetheless, you still have a C$2.00 target on that name. Tell us about that one.
LM: Open Range is coming off of a stellar year in 2011. It successfully launched the spin-out of its Poseidon division, which continues to be a strong performer. However, with that division gone, the bulk of the company’s opportunities are in dry gas, meaning NGLs under 20 bbl/MMcf. The company also has ~$50M of debt on a $75M line and is planning six gross wells for this year. So facing the current commodity price environment, the company is really in cash-conservation mode and as a result has forecasted production to shrink through this year—a stark contrast to the massive growth it was leading investors to believe for most of 2011 (its presentation projected a 2012 exit rate of ~10,000 boe/d). Now the assets that the company has are actually quite good—as far as gas assets go. The company has primarily one consolidated land block in the deep basin, an area that characteristically has large gas reserves and low operating costs, but it also has very low liquids yields so the netbacks are at $2.25/mcf gas. Our $2.00 target is premised on a $3.25/mcf gas price and to be fair, for gas investors looking at options on the commodity, Open Range is certainly a good candidate, however we believe gas markets will remain weak for some time, likely putting more near-term pressure on the name—we’ve had the company rated market perform since the spin-out, which really reflects our neutral-to-negative outlook on natural gas prices.
TER: And, finally, Strategic Oil & Gas Ltd. (SOG:TSX), which completed a $40M equity financing in December to give the junior a total of C$42 million in the bank. How is Strategic planning to use that cash?
LM: Strategic has two core light oil assets; the Maxhamish Chinkeh sand horizontal play in northeast BC, where Legacy is the operator, and its Steen River lands in northern Alberta. At Steen River, the company is the operator and has a 100% working interest in 70,000 net acres, so it has a lot of flexibility to accelerate the program here as well as a significant amount of running room for future drilling. There are at least three different oil-prone zones being targeted at Steen, so this is where we see the company getting the leverage for growing production in 2012. With that in mind, the company has provided a $60M capital program for 2012 that focuses on Steen. It has two rigs running there now, and plans to drill 20 (17 net) wells in 2012. Although the focus is still on the high-impact vertical Keg River wells, which get initial production rates of about 200 bbl/d for $1.5M, the company is also going to continue to advance its more “resource-style” horizontal play in the Sulphur point formation, and test out some new zones and play concepts in the area. Given that this program is pretty front-end weighted (there are nine wells planned for Q112), we think the company could use its balance sheet to expand this program through the back half of the year if it continues to achieve results like it has been.
TER: Despite the equity dilution in December, over the course of 2012 you expect Strategic’s share price to almost double to C$1.50. How is that going to happen?
LM: Strategic spent a lot of time on its Steen River assets in 2011. A lot of this was laying the technical foundation on which to build a strong portfolio of oil drill prospects. It successfully tested the horizontal Sulphur Point oil play, and it built out and de-risked its Keg River locations. With its balance sheet now all cashed up, we see 2012 really as a year where it focuses on aggressive drilling at Steen River. Since these wells can get IP rates of 100—200 bbl/d of oil and the capital costs of drilling them are low, it is able to really step on the accelerator pedal quickly. So we think that both cash flow and production will grow substantially through the year and into 2013. Right now we have it spending its guidance of $60M in 2012 and exiting the year with production of ~3,000 boe/d, a pretty strong growth profile when you compare it to 2011 exit production of 1,880 boe/d.
TER: Do you have some parting wisdom to impart to investors looking to enter this space for the first time in 2012?
LM: We are still constructive on oil prices, and with our view on NGL pricing and yields, we remain very cautious on the outlook for gas prices, so obviously we would overweight oil-focused names. That said, there are gas-weighted names that have currently good liquids yields with the ability to weather low gas prices and reallocate capital away from dry gas. Crocotta Energy is an exceptional example of this—the company is getting a liquids yield of 50-80 bbl/MMcf, which means that not only can it weather low natural gas prices, the bulk of cash flow is already coming from the liquids so the wells are very economic even at gas prices with a $1-handle. Second, we would certainly look to invest in companies that have the financial resources (balance sheet and cash flow) to fund an oil- or liquids-focused drilling program in order to take advantage of current oil prices. To put this in perspective—a typical oil well will pay-out in ~1.5 years, which means that all the money a producer puts in the ground they get back in 1.5 years—everything else after that is profit. Gas wells on the flip side can have pay-outs longer than three years. For a junior company, the ability to recycle cash by putting it in the ground, getting it out and repeating the process is paramount—particularly given that the amount they have is very limited. So to that end, junior companies with high oil weightings that we especially like include companies like Renegade Petroleum, Strategic, and Twin Butte Energy for their growth profiles and valuation. However, the top pick in our space right now is Twin Butte Energy, which recently closed the acquisition of Emerge. It pays a healthy dividend of 7%, has the potential to outperform its guidance, and has a very conservative payout ratio for 2012 if light-heavy differentials and oil prices remain within reason of current levels.
TER: Thanks for sharing your insights with us.
LM: My pleasure.
Luc Mageau joined Raymond James in March 2006. He is responsible for covering junior and intermediate oil and gas producers. Prior to joining the firm, Luc was employed as a commercial lender at a major bank and as a research analyst at a U.S.-based equity research firm. He has a bachelor of commerce degree from the University of Alberta (2001) and holds the CFA designation.