BP plc CEO Bob Dudley, who stepped down as chief on Tuesday, is leaving on a high after helping guide the global producer to stronger-than-expected results in the fourth quarter even with lower natural gas and oil prices.

Fourth quarter underlying replacement cost profit, similar to U.S. net earnings, was $2.6 billion (12.6 cents/share), compared with $3.5 billion (17.4 cents) in 4Q2018 and $2.3 billion in 3Q2019. Full-year profit reached $10 billion, up from Wall Street’s consensus expectations of $9.7 billion but off around 21% from year-ago earnings.

Dudley, a 40-year BP stalwart, took the wheel in 2010 following the Macondo well blowout in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. He guided the company through treacherous waters for several quarters, selling off assets and laying off employees to keep the energy major afloat.

Mission Accomplished

Tuesday appeared to be a fitting end to Dudley’s tenure, as BP delivered a solid quarterly performance and announced it would hike the dividend by 2.4% to 10.5 cents/share. Upstream chief Bernard Looney takes over on Wednesday.

“After almost 10 years, this is now my last quarter as CEO,” Dudley said during the conference call to share results. “In that time, we have achieved a huge amount together and I am proud to be handing over a safer and stronger BP to Bernard and his team. I am confident that under their leadership, BP will continue to successfully navigate the rapidly changing energy landscape.”

Chairman Helge Lund took a few minutes to praise Dudley’s tenure through the volatile decade. Dudley, he said, “quickly stabilized BP and then he changed BP’s culture, instilled new values and helped make BP safer and profitable again. I count that as the first great achievement of his leadership.

“Then there was the oil price downturn, a big challenge for the whole industry. Bob made BP leaner and more modern, and his phrase, ‘value over volume’ became a guide for the business. BP came out even stronger, and that was his second great achievement.”

Lund also said he was grateful for Dudley’s “leadership into the energy transition he has invested in low carbon and position BP to dynamically drive the energy transition forward.”

Gas Trading Strong

During the quarter, BP’s oil and natural gas trading arm performed well, CFO Brian Gilvary said. BP long has been the No. 1 North American natural gas marketer, according to NGI’s quarterly marketer surveys. BP does not detail its trading numbers, but the CFO provided some color.

“It was a strong quarter for gas,” he said. The oil trading was “certainly below plan for the fourth quarter...But overall for oil trading and gas trading, they both had record years in 2019 and certainly a strong set of results, as we've seen in recent years and certainly over the last decade. So a lot of things went in the right direction.”

BP’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) portfolio is around two-thirds equity and one-third merchant/commercial, according to Dudley. BP has “no significant equity volumes” scheduled around the short-term loans that we have,” he said. “We have some exports coming out of the United States...I think what you're going to see in the first half of this year, coming out of the mild winter in the United States States, the prices are going to remain pretty soft at the levels that we see today.

“We think that will clear up by the time we get to the...back-end of this year,” with volumes underpinning the gas price. In the third quarter, Dudley noted, management said it expected to see “pretty bearish gas prices certainly through 2020. The question is, do you start to recover in 2021 or 2023, given the two effects of gas being backed up in the United States and big LNG projects around the world coming on?”

BP plans to move some of the surplus volumes to its merchant business. “In terms of LNG trading, it's all about the optionality and making sure that we retain those options with different price points that allow the team to optimize the way they have had a very successful year last year.”

Lower 48 Progress

BPX Energy, the Lower 48-focused arm whose main investments today are in the Eagle Ford and Haynesville shales, as well as the Permian Basin, “is also making good progress, delivering synergies this year of $240 million, above the target of $90 million we had planned,” Gilvary said.

U.S. onshore oil production more than doubled last year to 124,000 b/d following the $10.5 billion acquisition of BPH assets in late 2018. Natural gas production rose to 2.175 Bcf/d from 1,705 MMcf/d in 2018.

About 12% of BP’s total capital expenditures last year, $1.94 billion, were spent by the BPX business, up from $1.5 billion in 2018.

“Well costs continue to decline in the Eagle Ford and Permian under BP operations, and we are progressing high value, high impact activities as we continue to focus on value over volume,” Gilvary said.

Less love is expected in the gas-heavy Haynesville, Gilvary said, as Lower 48 investments are being diverted from “high-volume low-margin gas production to higher margin oil production in the Permian and Eagle Ford basins, where we continue to ramp-up activity.”

U.S. natural gas prices continue to be walloped by strong supply growth during a mild winter, as well as “softer demand growth,” said the CFO. Gilvary had said last fall BP was bearish on natural gas prices through 2021.

“We expect price to be driven by the balance between continued supply growth versus supply disruption in light of the current challenging pricing environment,” Gilvary said Tuesday.

Underlying production this year within the BPX business is expected to decline from 2019 because of the revamp in the onshore development program, with average output of 200,000-250,000 boe/d.

BPX operated on average 13 rigs last year, with six in the Eagle Ford, four in the Haynesville and three in the Permian.

One uncertainty to world energy demand is the threat to supply and demand from the coronavirus outbreak.

“There is no question coronavirus, I suspect, will impact demand this year,” Dudley said. “We're currently seeing for the year, something around 300,000-500,000 b/d impact on demand growth than we were looking at...coming into this year. Of course, that will unfold as the year progresses. It may be more or less than that, but that is our current estimation.”

Further out in 2020, BP expects to see stronger oil demand growth “driven by improving global economic sentiment,” along with “solid U.S. growth” and new supply from Norway, Brazil and Canada, Gilvary said.

In the new era with Looney at the helm, efficiencies are expected to remain the mantra. BP is facing a “challenging macro environment,” but it remains on track to build out more global oil and gas projects, Gilvary said.

BP started up five major projects within its upstream division last year and took five final investment decisions to underpin 2021 targets, and 2020 is considered the “transition year,” he said.

Want to see more earnings? See the full list of NGI's 4Q2019 earnings season coverage.