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Houston E&P, OFS Job Losses Forecast in 2015

Houston, the nation's energy epicenter, is facing uncertainty across the natural gas and oil industry in 2015 on low oil prices, mergers and potential bankruptcies, but booming petrochemical plant construction and expanding exports may offset some of the negativity, the Greater Houston Partnership (GHP) said.

GHP, which represents about 20% of the region's workforce, issued its 2015 forecast on Thursday. The outlook is not as upbeat as in past years, in part because of the dramatic slide in oil prices. Houston is where most of the nation’s -- and a lot of the global -- deals are made and most of the operators -- producers, refiners, oilfield services (OFS), pipelines and engineering -- are headquartered.

"Broadly defined, energy accounted for $186.6 billion, or 38.1%, of the region's output in '13," GHP said. A recent study by McKinsey & Co. conducted for the partnership found that 70% of the city's tradable sectors -- goods and services sold outside the region -- are energy-related.

As important as the jobs to the region are the accompanying wages. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis estimated that average annual compensation in Houston's mining (oil and gas extraction) sector was $185,000 in 2013, while compensation for all other industries averaged $64,500.

"Translation: one energy job has the purchasing power of three non-energy jobs in Houston," GHP said.

The partnership expects metro Houston to gain 62,900 jobs in 2015, but job losses are expected in exploration and production, OFS and oilfield equipment manufacturing.

"Houston's economy will continue to grow in 2015, but at a slower rate than the past few years,” said GHP Vice President of Research Patrick Jankowski. "The uncertainty in the oilpatch will be offset by the ongoing boom in chemical plant construction, the region's never-ceasing population growth and that growth's impact on retail, restaurants and health care, the continued expansion of international air service at IAH and Hobby, and the need to educate a growing school population."

In the coming months, the floor for the breakeven price to drill in some U.S. basins is going to be tested, GHP forecasters said. A "shakeout in the industry will undoubtedly occur." The change, said the partnership, already has begun with the pending cross-town merger of OFS giants Halliburton Co. and Baker Hughes Inc., which when consolidated will lead to job losses.

"Expect more mergers in the future," said the partnership. "Balance sheets will be as important as the economics of drilling individual wells. Companies burdened with debt will fold, providing others with opportunities to acquire assets at bargain prices. Service firms with offices in remote locations will consolidate, most likely into Houston."

GHP said the pattern appears to mirror one that occurred in Houston in the 1980s when the bottom fell out of the energy sector -- but it won't be as harsh.

"Mega projects in their early stages will come under closer scrutiny. Those well underway will continue. In a year or two, perhaps more, the industry will emerge leaner and more efficient, and production growth will resume."

It's "inevitable" that layoffs in Houston will occur following "mergers, bankruptcies, weak demand and the need to cut costs. Resumes of engineers with energy experience have already begun to circulate in the community.

“If history is a guide, layoffs will be more concentrated in oilfield services (blue collar jobs) than in exploration (white collar jobs)."

The "stronger" exploration companies likely will be "holding onto talent they know they will need when the market rebalances. As a result, the partnership anticipates a significant drop in oilfield services (7,900 jobs) and a minor drop in oil and gas exploration (1,300 jobs) in '15."

Any downturn in the Houston energy workforce may spill into other sectors. The demand for new office space is expected to abate, but construction should continue for the $100 billion investments planned in ethane crackers, chemical plans and liquefied natural terminals announced for the Gulf Coast, helping to offset the decline in commercial construction.

Credit Suisse analyst Michael Dahl said Friday that housing demand in Houston also is at risk from the energy sector downturn.

"To the extent lower oil prices leads to less investment, decelerating employment growth/relocation and lower confidence in local employment, housing demand will almost certainly be negatively impacted."

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