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Whiting Cuts Capex, But CEO Optimistic Oil Prices Rising By Year’s End

Whiting Petroleum Corp. became the latest exploration and production (E&P) company to trim capital expenditures (capex) for the rest of the year, announcing plans to drop two rigs and go to a four-rig drilling program.

But James Volker, CEO of the Denver-based producer, said he is optimistic oil prices will be on the rise before the end of the year. He noted other operators in the Bakken Shale, where Whiting is one of the largest oil producers, have taken an interest in the company's noncore assets, although no asset sales are pending.

Whiting lowered its capex budget for 2017 to $950 million from $1.1 billion. The company plans to devote $518 million to operations in the Williston Basin, and $332 million to its Redtail development program, which targets the A, B and C intervals of the Niobrara formation and the Codell/Fort Hays formations, within the Denver-Julesburg (DJ) Basin in Colorado.

For the remainder of 2017, Whiting plans to deploy four rigs in the Williston. One of the two dropped rigs was deployed in the Williston, while the other was in the DJ Basin. The company expects to ramp 82 wells into production in the second half of the year.

Other E&Ps that have so far announced capex reductions this past week include Anadarko Petroleum Corp., Hess Corp. and ConocoPhillips.

During the question-and-answer portion of the conference call to discuss 2Q2017 results on Thursday, exploration chief Mark Williams said Whiting expects to exit 2017 with about 38 drilled but uncompleted (DUC) wells. The company should complete most of its DUC inventory by the end of 1Q2018.

Whiting met its production guidance for 2Q2017, reporting output of 10.3 million boe (112,660 boe/d), of which 83% was oil and natural gas liquids (NGL). More than 93% of the quarter's production (105,475 boe/d) came from the Williston Basin, while the remainder (6,610 boe/d) came from Redtail wells. The company issued production guidance of 10.5-11.1 million boe for 3Q2017, with 43.6-44.3 million boe forecast for the full-year 2017.

Volker said the company may consider an incremental pay-down of its debt, especially against the backdrop of a flattening forward curve in commodity prices, but he thinks oil prices could rebound in the near future.

"You can't have things happening that are happening in Venezuela and elsewhere without having an effect overall on the supply of crude oil worldwide," Volker said during the conference call. "So I'm actually optimistic that we will see oil prices [increase] by year end...I think certainly $50-55 is definitely achievable. And I would say that that will be reflected in the forward curve.

"I'll buy a Starbucks if I'm wrong about that, but the point I'm trying to make is that I really believe that as we think about our debt level, we have to think about it in relation to our cash flow. And as our margins increased, I think you understand they increased markedly, with just $3 or so increase in the price of crude."

Volker said while there is "strong interest" by other operators in Whiting's non-core acreage in the Bakken Shale, the company has not signed any sales agreements.

"It's certainly in high demand by other operators, and I would say that our decision [to sell] will depend upon how much these people who are interested want to distinguish themselves from the crowd, meaning how much they are willing to pay," Volker said. "I would say, from what I can tell, the market is strong and it's also well populated based upon the inquiries we get."

Whiting held 743,667 gross (449,857 net) acres in the Williston Basin at the end of 2Q2017, 99% of which was held by production. Working interest in the acreage averaged 60%, and it had 5,251 potential gross drilling locations at the end of the second quarter.

Whiting reported a net loss of $66 million (minus 18 cents/share) in 2Q2017, compared with a net loss of $301 million (minus $1.33) in the year-ago quarter. Net cash from operating activities totaled $111 million in the second quarter.

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