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ExxonMobil Bets $60 Billion on an Unstable New Era for Oil

As the world tries to move away from fossil fuels, the oil supermajor acquires one of the Permian Basin’s biggest players. Here’s why.

Exxon in Texas.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

ExxonMobil has long been considered by observers as something more akin to a state than a mere oil company. Its signature massive overseas projects, which can take over a decade to go from idea to getting oil out of the ground, require not just billions of dollars of investment, but the type of on-the-ground convincing and conniving typical of interstate diplomacy.

Exxon executives even got the awards typically reserved for statesman, as when the company’s former chief executive (and future secretary of state) Rex Tillerson received the Russian Order of Friendship as a commendation for the work ExxonMobil did with the Russian state oil company Rosneft in the Arctic.

But ExxonMobil now sees the future of the oil business in its relative backyard — namely, the Permian Basin, the massively productive oil field that stretches from western Texas to eastern New Mexico, and specifically its western stretch, the Midland basin. The move represents an acknowledgement that the world’s energy markets have changed and the ability to start — and stop — production quickly may be more valuable than securing massive new projects.

ExxonMobil and Pioneer Natural Resources announced a planned stitch-up on Wednesday, combining the supermajor with one of the Permian’s biggest players. The deal is worth almost $60 billion, making its ExxonMobil’s biggest deal since its purchase for, well, Mobil in 1999.

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  • The combined companies will, in less than five years, be producing 2 million barrels of oil per day in the Permian (out of over 5 million total), ExxonMobil’s chief executive Darren Woods said Wednesday morning. Today, merged production would represent some 1.3 million barrels per day, about half of Exxon Mobil’s total in 2022. Exxon will own some 1.4 million acres in the Permian, thanks to Pioneer’s 850,000.

    The average cost of extracting the oil in territory controlled by Pioneer will be $35, Woods said, well below where oil prices have ranged in the last year.

    Now, much of Exxon’s oil portfolio will be in so-called “short-cycle” oil, meaning that the time that elapses between deciding to drill and getting oil out of the ground is shorter.

    “Where new, major conventional fields cost billions of dollars, take several years to begin, and a decade or more to produce from, a hydraulic fracturing well costs $10 million or less, takes a few months to set up, and produces the majority of its oil within a few years. It provides a flexible means by which investors can extract oil, distinct from the mainstream industry,” explained University of California geographer Gabe Eckhouse in 2021.

    These investments can swing dramatically in response to oil prices. When ExxonMobil slammed the brakes on oil production in the early months of the pandemic, it even announced a 75% cut in its Permian rigs.

    ExxonMobil is not positioning itself to a world where the fossil fuel business dries up, but one where demand becomes more unstable. When oil executives can forecast that demand will steadily grow over time, they can justify billion-dollar-investments in massive new oil projects.

    “All that Big Oil needed was the geological acumen to find the next reservoir and the political skills to sign a contract with a government in a far-flung corner of the world. Its cash and prowess to build marvels of engineering mega-projects would do the rest for the next 50 years or so,” Bloomberg’s Javier Blas wrote when the deal first came into focus last week.

    With a portfolio more heavily weighted towards domestic assets that are cheaper to operate, ExxonMobil can now more nimbly respond to wild swings in energy policy across the globe — whether it’s a major oil exporter disappearing from the legitimate Western market, or countries in the industrialized world deliberately reducing their oil consumption — and more precisely scale its investment to oil demand.

    “When commodity markets have downcycles, the short-cycle assets provide additional capital flexibility as shale assets require less long-term capital commitments, compared to conventional operation,” Woods said, essentially explaining to investors that ExxonMobil would be able to conserve cash when oil prices dropped and return it to them when oil prices go back up.

    ExxonMobil isn’t the only company buying in the Permian. Pioneer itself previously swallowed up DoublePoint Energy, which had almost 100,000 Midland Basin acres, as well as Parsley Energy. Occidental, which has been a leader in investing in carbon management, bought Andarko in a massive $55 billion deal in 2019. The Pioneer acquisition could be a sign that new wave of consolidation is upon the Permian.

    While the deal is not at all consistent with a world without fossil fuels, it’s not entirely inconsistent with where we are today, where much of the rich world at least has some kind of climate policy. Earlier this year, ExxonMobil announced that it would buy Denbury Inc., which operates a massive set of pipelines for transporting carbon dioxide. They could be used in the oil giant’s emerging carbon-management business, which includes deals for carbon capture for its Louisiana ammonia plant, a Nucor steel plant, and a hydrogen plant it’s working on in Texas. Woods said Thursday morning on an investor call that the deal “strengthens our low-carbon solutions business by increasing the volume of low-cost and lower-carbon Permian feed into our planned Baytown low-carbon hydrogen and ammonia facilities,” and that it would use its technology to reduce emissions from its oil operations in the territory it acquired from Pioneer.

    But ExxonMobil itself isn’t being reduced. It’s only getting bigger.

    Matthew Zeitlin

    Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine. Read More

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