By Irina Slav
- 2021 saw a big number of high-profile oil deals in the prolific Permian basin
- Independent oil companies are leading the charge
- The Delaware Basin is especially attracting attention from E&Ps
The Permian shale play, the star of the shale patch, witnessed a hot merger and acquisition year in 2021 amid the pandemic as many companies sought to gain an edge over competitors by either increasing their presence in the play or in the case of Shell, leaving it altogether.
Shell’s exit from the Permian cost ConocoPhillips $9.5 billion in cash, boosting its position in the Permian quite considerably at a time when the play continues to be a magnet for an industry no longer committed to production growth at all costs.
Independents are perhaps even more active in dealmaking. Earthstone Energy, a Texas-based oil producer, last month paid some $600 million for assets in the Delaware Basin—one of the most attractive parts of the Permian—with the deal slated to close by the end of March this year. Earthstone said the acquisition would increase its production by 39 percent.
Another Texas-based driller, Abraxas Petroleum Corporation, earlier this month said it had sold all of its assets in North Dakota in order to focus on operations in the Permian. According to the company’s chief executive, the move would help Abraxas reduce its debt load and boost returns to shareholders.
Consolidation is also ongoing in the most prolific U.S. shale play. Last month, private equity firm EnCap Investments merged two of its portfolio companies operating in the Permian into a $4-billion company that the owner plans to take public this year. The plan signals continued optimism for the oil sector despite the ESG push and banks’ growing reluctance to lend to oil and gas.
The trend is a continuation from last year when consolidation really took off in the Permian amid record-low interest rates, improving oil prices, and a bullish demand outlook for crude. In the second and third quarters of the year alone, deals worth a total of $30 billion took place, including Shell’s sale to Conoco.
According to Evaluate Energy, which publishes quarterly reports on upstream M&A, the second quarter of 2021 saw deals worth $18 billion during the second quarter and $12 billion during the third quarter. The figures for the fourth quarter have yet to come out, but they are likely to have remained robust even though a certain slowdown is likely to have been recorded.
The slowdown was increased regulatory scrutiny on deals amid high gasoline prices that made consumers critical of how the government is handling essential commodities. This growing criticism prompted antitrust authorities to extend the review period for at least five mergers and acquisitions in the oil and gas space during the final quarter of 2021, Reuters reported in December.
The scrutiny is unprecedented, according to a former acting chair of the Federal Trade Commission, who told Reuters that the new chair of the FTC may actually want to deter mergers in the oil and gas industry.
“Even though previous Democratic FTC commissioners wanted active enforcement, the industry was told what the standards were, deals got reviewed and things moved along. This is really different,” Maureen Ohlhausen said. “I believe the FTC Chair, effectively, would like to deter mergers.”
“I am aware of two mergers in the last couple of months where FTC staff did not see a need to issue a second request but were overruled by their management,” said the chair of antitrust practice at law firm Vinson & Ellis, Darren Tucker, as quoted by Reuters.
If this is indeed the case, it may affect the immediate future of dealmaking in the Permian and will likely deepen an already unfriendly sentiment in the industry towards the administration. Whether this increased scrutiny would eventually lead to lower prices at the pump, however, remains an open question.