One week after reaching into investors' pockets with a dividend cut, Marathon Oil Corp. CEO Lee Tillman told analysts some of the dollars that would have gone to shareholders will find their way to the Eagle Ford Shale and the company's emerging Oklahoma resource plays.
The dividend cut from 21 cents to 5 cents per share "...will increase annual free cash flow by more than $425 million and aligns with our priority of maintaining a strong balance sheet through the cycle," Tillman said during a conference call Thursday. "The additional capital flexibility is essential to support growth from our deep inventory of investment opportunities in the U.S. resource plays [for] when commodity prices improve."
Asked by an analyst about capital allocation, Tillman replied that economics will drive decision-making. This means targeting incremental activity in the Eagle Ford and also ultimately expanding the company's operated program in Oklahoma.
"There's no doubt that the macro environment continues to challenge the industry, but one thing remains clear: Marathon Oil is not opportunity-limited," Tillman said. "We have profitable inventory even in a lower-for-longer commodity price scenario as lower cost, capital efficiency and enhanced productivity continue to reduce breakeven prices and improve our economics."
The company's North America production available for sale averaged 263,000 net boe/d during the third quarter, a 5% increase over the year-ago quarter and compared to 274,000 net boe/d for second quarter 2015. The decrease from the second quarter was primarily a result of lower Eagle Ford volumes and the disposition of East Texas, North Louisiana and Wilburton, OK, natural gas assets, which closed in August. North America production costs were $7.43/boe, down 27% from the year-ago period. The company said it expects full-year unit production costs to be at the low end of guidance of $7.50 to $8.50/boe.
Production in the Eagle Ford averaged 128,000 net boe/d, 9% above the year-ago quarter but lower than the 135,000 net boe/d in the prior quarter. The production decrease compared to the previous quarter was principally due to timing of wells to sales weighted late in the quarter, lower than anticipated results from a step-out pad in Live Oak County and three Austin Chalk wells testing the western periphery of the play.
Unconventional Oklahoma production averaged 23,000 net boe/d during third quarter, an increase of 21% over the year-ago quarter and compared to 24,000 net boe/d in the prior quarter. Marathon brought online seven company-operated South-Central Oklahoma Oil Province (Scoop) wells, of which one was an extended-reach lateral, and two company-operated Sooner Trend Anadarko Canadian and Kingfisher (Stack) Meramec wells. The company-operated Smith infill pilot wells recently came online with 24-hour initial production rates averaging 1,060 net boe/d (60% liquids) on 107-acre spacing. The company also spud its first operated Springer well during the third quarter and is in the process of completing the well.
In the Bakken Shale, Marathon averaged 61,000 net boe/d of production during third quarter, a 9% increase above the year-ago quarter. Volumes were flat to the previous quarter with five wells brought to sales, all in East Myrmidon, down from 22 in the previous quarter. Production was driven by continued "strong" performance from the Doll pad wells in West Myrmidon, which came online in late June, as well as sustained improvement in production uptime, Marathon said.
"We're maximizing capital allocation to the highest return opportunities in the U.S. resource plays, but with the right balance of high-confidence development activity and continued resource delineation that positions us for growth as we look through the current cycle," Tillman said. "This quarter's results were impacted by non-cash losses and impairments related to lower forecasted commodity prices and our continued strategic transition away from conventional exploration."
Last week the company also reduced its 2015 capital program to $3.1 billion. It will be lower next year, Tillman said. "...[B]ased on our current outlook and preliminary plan discussions, we would anticipate a total company 2016 program of up to $2.2 billion, subject to board approval, which would give us the flexibility to deliver 2016 annual average production in the U.S. resource plays flat to 2015 exit rate."
Marathon reported a quarterly net loss of $749 million (minus $1.11/share) compared with net income of $431 million (64 cents/share) in the year-ago quarter. Excluding special items, the company reported a third quarter adjusted net loss of $138 million (minus 20 cents/share) compared with adjusted net income of $515 million (76 cents/share) in the year-ago quarter. The third quarter included $611 million ($949 million pre-tax) of noncash charges composed largely of losses and asset impairments resulting from lower forecasted commodity prices and changes in the company's conventional exploration strategy.