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Marathon, EOG Hunker Down, Cutting CapEx, Rigs

Two Houston-based major players in the Eagle Ford and Bakken shale plays said Thursday they are further cutting back on operations this year in light of the oil price crash.

Both Marathon Oil Corp. and EOG Resources CEOs said their plans for this year are geared to allow them to respond to further price volatility.

Marathon CEO Lee Tillman said his company is cutting capital expenditures another 20% from levels already lowered in December, and rigs in the Eagle Ford and Bakken collectively would be cut from 33 to 14 by the end of the second quarter. Even before the latest cutback, Marathon had already realized $225 million in savings on well costs in South Texas and elsewhere, along with renegotiated service contracts, he said.

Marathon executives are “no more clairvoyant” on pricing now than in December, and the price dive showed again the "industry's inability to predict prices," Tillman said. "Flexibility is going to be essential in a volatile commodity market."

The 2015 capex budget emphasizes "selectivity of returns and balance sheet flexibility, along with positioning us for price recovery,” he said.

EOG CEO Bill Thomas made similar points during his company’s earnings conference call. He said EOG’s top priority this year is preparing for an upswing in crude oil prices, which he sees as inevitable since current price levels will not support projected global oil demand growth. While focusing on the Eagle Ford, Bakken and Delaware Basin, EOG will slash its average rig count to 20 this year and delay completions across the board.

Thomas emphasized that EOG will continue to add leases and acreage in the current low-price environment. "Low oil prices mean unique opportunities to add low-cost, high-quality acres, and we will continue to grow our acreage portfolio through leaseholds and tactical acquisitions," he said.

"We believe our integrated approach to completion technology is industry-leading; each quarter we continue to add to well productivity, and that will continue to be a high priority this year," Thomas said.

While both companies reported decreased 4Q2014 earnings results (Marathon a loss) amid fairly strong earnings increases for all of last year, the CEOs chose to emphasize plans for capital spending this year in their Texas and North Dakota plays, along with Marathon's Oklahoma interests.

Marathon's vice president for North American production operations, Lance Robertson, said the company is "prudently reducing development activities and commensurate capital spending" across all three major plays. The adjustments can be made "readily and at little, or no, costs," he said.

After the second quarter, Marathon anticipates continuing to operate with 14 rigs for the rest of this year, subject to sustained swings in prices up or down that could change the total. Robertson said Marathon's completion activity will also be altered, while still projecting a production increase year over year of 20% for 2015.

With various efficiencies, the company’s costs have dropped an average of $1.3 million/well to an average of $6.3 million/well in 2015, Robertson said, adding that the company plans to drill 215 to 225 wells in south Texas this year, "with returns ranging from 40% to 60%." The latter assumes $60/bbl flat WTI prices, he said.

Tillman said Marathon is looking at 5-7% growth in its portfolio this year, but the key resource plays will deliver up to 20% growth. Exit rates and resources plays will increase in 4Q2015, compared with 4Q2015, he said. "The overall portfolio will essentially be flat on exit rate with the resource plays essentially offsetting our more mature properties."

For EOG, between the Eagle Ford and the Rockies added assets, the company added 1. 4 billion boe potential reserves, and 2,300 high-return net drilling locations to its portfolio last year, Thomas said. "In recent years we have added twice as many locations as we have drilled."

EOG continues to drive down well costs and drive up well productivity, and that is why Thomas is bullish about the company's chance to thrive in the depressed crude price environment.

In the company's plan for preparing for the price recovery, Thomas is expecting to take a three-pronged approach: reducing rig counts 50%, intentionally delaying completions to build an inventory of 350 uncompleted wells; continuing to drive down well costs and raise production rates; and adding leases and acreage at the current low prices.

On the financial side, EOG's 4Q2014 earnings dropped 23% to $445 million (81 cents/share), compared to $580 million ($1.06) for the same period in 2013, and for the full year, it earned $2.91 billion ($5.32) compared to $2.19 billion ($4.02) for all of 2013.

Marathon reported 4Q2014 results from continuing operations as a loss of $89 million (minus 14 cents), compared to $179 million (20 cents) in profits for the same period in 2013, profits of $1.16 billion ($1.42) for all of 2014, compared to $1.05 billion ($1.31) for all of the previous year.

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