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Marathon's U.S. Onshore Can Weather Price Downturn, Executives Say

Marathon Oil Corp.'s U.S. resource plays can hold their own in a low-price environment, and the company's U.S. drilling program is expected to proceed essentially unchanged from plan, executives said Tuesday.

The 2015 capital spending budget is still being hammered out, but if there is to be a pullback in activity, it will likely be somewhere other than the U.S. onshore, which is not on the margin as far as spending is concerned, CEO Lee Tillman told financial analysts who follow the company during a third quarter earnings conference call.

"Marathon Oil's U.S. resource plays delivered strong operational performance in the third quarter, and we remain on track to achieve greater than 30% production growth year-over-year in the resource plays," Tillman said. "Both our Eagle Ford and Bakken net production delivered double-digit growth compared to the previous quarter. However, lower price realizations offset the impact of higher production volumes in our financial results."

Analysts were curious about Marathon's take on the recent oil price correction, but before they could pepper him with questions, Tillman took the topic head-on in his opening remarks.

"Marathon Oil...is well positioned for a lower product price market," he said, citing about $2.1 billion in proceeds from the company's recent sale of its Norway business. "Although we have yet to finalize our 2015 capital program, at the macro level we are incorporating the latest commodity price volatility into our business planning but remain confident in our forward growth plan with strong cash flows...to support the continued development of our deep and high-quality inventory in the Eagle Ford, Bakken and Oklahoma resource basins."

Tillman conceded that the company's planning process for 2015 "has been a bit overtaken by the change in the commodity price."  He said, however, that the company's U.S. operations are not on the margin and will be "largely unchanged" going forward.

Cash flow won't be a "limiter" on investment as management is willing to outspend cash flow, temporarily anyway, in pursuit of a profitable program, Tillman told analysts. He promised more details in December, when spending plans for next year have been worked out.

For now, the Norway windfall is being redeployed in the U.S. onshore. Marathon added one rig in the Bakken Shale and plans to add two in Oklahoma by the end of the year, as it previously said it would. Completion design improvements and downspacing are driving efficiency and performance improvements in the U.S. resource plays, executives said.

The North America E&P segment reported income of $292 million in the third quarter, compared to income of $242 million in 3Q2013. The increase is primarily due to higher net sales volumes from the U.S. resource plays, partially offset by lower crude oil price realizations and expenses associated with the higher net sales volumes, such as production expenses and depreciation, depletion and amortization.

Production in the Eagle Ford averaged 117,000 net boe/d in the third quarter, an increase of 43% over the year-ago average and 15% over the previous quarter. About 64% of third quarter net production was crude oil/condensate, 18% was natural gas liquids (NGL) and 18% was natural gas. "Enhanced completion design in the Eagle Ford continues to deliver strong results as the growing population of these wells achieving 180-day cumulative production continues to average 25% improvement in volumes, the company said.

During the quarter, the company brought online eight Austin Chalk wells, all drilled within previously delineated acreage. Thirty-day initial production rates ranged from 800 to 1,300 boe/d with an average 69% liquids yield. Sixteen additional Austin Chalk wells are being drilled, completed or awaiting first production.

In the Bakken Shale, Marathon averaged 56,000 net boe/d of production during the third quarter, an increase of 47% over the year-ago average and 12% over the previous quarter. Bakken production averaged 89% crude oil, 6% NGLs and 5% natural gas.

Three of four Bakken high-density spacing pilots have begun drilling, with each pad composed of six Middle Bakken and six Three Forks first bench wells per drilling-spacing unit. Marathon is continuing an enhanced completion design pilot program, including elevated proppant volumes, hybrid slickwater fracks, increased stages and cemented liners. Of the 19 Bakken wells brought to sales in the quarter, eight are piloting enhanced completions with "encouraging early results," the company said.

Unconventional Oklahoma production averaged 19,000 net boe/d during third quarter, an increase of 27% over the year-ago average and up "modestly" compared to the previous quarter. About 42% of third quarter net production was liquids and 58% was natural gas.

In the Gulf of Mexico (GOM), the Marathon-operated Key Largo exploration prospect, on Walker Ridge Block 578, was spud in September as the first well of a multi-year GOM exploration program with a newbuild deepwater drillship. Marathon Oil is operator and holds a 60% working interest. An exploration well on the outside-operated Perseus prospect in Desoto Canyon Block 231 was also spud in September. Marathon holds a 30% nonoperated working interest. The second appraisal well on the outside-operated Shenandoah prospect was spud in late May and is still drilling. The well is on Walker Ridge Block 52, in which Marathon holds a 10% working interest.

Third quarter net income was $431 million (64 cents/share), down from $569 million (80 cents/share) in the year-ago period. Adjusted net income was $515 million (76 cents/share), down from $617 million (87 cents/share) in the year-ago quarter.

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