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More With Less: Marathon U.S. Plays Profitable With Cheap Oil, CEO Says

Treading cautiously in an environment of low and volatile commodity prices, Marathon Oil Corp. executives on Thursday touted success at scaling back activity in U.S. resource plays where the company is active: the Eagle Ford and Bakken shales, and Oklahoma's South Central Oklahoma Oil Province (SCOOP) and multi-horizon STACK plays.

"We find ourselves in a continued low and volatile pricing environment," CEO Lee Tillman told analysts during a conference call. "We've taken decisive action consistent with our business plan released in the first quarter: activity in capex reductions, capital efficiency and productivity gains, operating and [general and administrative] cost reductions and noncore asset divestments."

Marathon intends to hold production volumes steady for the remainder of the year while proceeding with co-development of the Eagle Ford play, integrating completion and downspacing pilots in the Bakken, and holding leasehold in the SCOOP and STACK.

"Even with these planned reductions, we will still deliver on our growth targets of 5% to 7% for the overall company and 20% for the resource plays year-over-year," Tillman said.

Capital spending was down about 40% from the previous quarter as Marathon moderated activity in the U.S. resource plays.

However, North America production available for sale averaged 274,000 net boe/d for the second quarter, a 21% increase over the year-ago quarter and compared to 283,000 net boe/d for first quarter 2015.

The decrease from the first quarter was in line with the planned reductions in resource play drilling activity resulting in the number of wells to sales down by more than 35%, the company said. North America production costs were reduced to $7.19/boe, down 31% from the year-ago period and 9% from the prior quarter. Full-year guidance on unit production costs has been adjusted down by $1.25/boe.

Second quarter production from the Eagle Ford averaged 135,000 net boe/d, a 32% increase above the year-ago quarter and compared to 147,000 net boe/d in the prior quarter. Fewer wells went to sales -- 52 during second quarter compared to 91 in the previous quarter. This more than 40% reduction in wells to sales drove the quarter-on-quarter decline.

Improvement in drilling and completions drove efficiency gains, with wells drilled at an average rate of 1,800 feet per day, a 15% improvement over the previous quarter. With this improvement, the time to drill an Eagle Ford well spud-to-total depth dropped to 11 days, according to Marathon. Eleven Austin Chalk, eight upper Eagle Ford and 33 lower Eagle Ford wells were brought online during the quarter. A three-horizon "stack-and-frack" achieved 30-day initial production (IP) rates of 1,400-1,650 gross boe/d.

Bakken Shale production averaged 61,000 net boe/d during the second quarter, a 22% increase above the year-ago quarter and 7% over the previous quarter. Bakken results were driven by efficiency gains and outperformance relative to historical type curves, Marathon said. "Application of enhanced completion designs is resulting in wells consistently outperforming historical type curves on average by more than 30% in cumulative production after 180 days." Marathon completed its first company-operated Three Forks second bench well in the Myrmidon area, which exceeded expectations with a 30-day IP rate of 1,226 boe/d.

In Oklahoma, unconventional production averaged 24,000 net boe/d during second quarter, an increase of 33% over the year-ago quarter and effectively flat sequentially. Marathon brought online two company-operated SCOOP wells and one company-operated STACK-Osage well during the quarter; and all five operated Smith infill pilot wells have been drilled and are awaiting completion.

Two outside-operated Meramec extended-reach lateral wells were also brought online in the quarter. Marathon has re-allocated an additional $35 million of capital to the Oklahoma resource basins, bringing the total reallocation to $60 million for the year to high-value non-operated activity.

For the third quarter, North America E&P production available for sale is expected to average 260,000 to 270,000 net boe/d, reflecting a full quarter at reduced drilling activity levels across the U.S. resource plays. But the company confirmed that the resource plays "remain on track to achieve annual growth in available for sale volumes of 20% year-over-year."

Tillman outlined how the tough times have taught the company to do more with less.

"Our U.S. resource plays continue to deliver solid returns at current pricing, with capital efficiency and enhanced productivity lowering breakeven prices," he said. "Our last disclosure on our five-year drilling inventory showed 70% of our inventory profitable at $50 a barrel [West Texas Intermediate crude], and that analysis did not incorporate our most recent completed well cost savings and productivity enhancements."

Marathon reported a second quarter adjusted net loss of $155 million (minus 23 cents/share) compared with adjusted net income of $423 million (89 cents/share) for the year-ago quarter. Excluding special items, the second quarter net loss was $386 million (minus 57 cents/share) compared with net income of $540 million (80 cents/share) in the year-ago quarter.

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