Someone needs to put the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band on a bus, drive it to Midland, and have it march through the main dining room of the Petroleum Club to wake everybody up. Oil prices have reached heights unseen since 2014. Not only that, but pumping crude has been transformed in the public eye, practically overnight, from a climate scourge to an act of patriotism in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “We have the ability, and frankly an obligation, to support our global allies to help fuel democracy and energy security,” Ed Longanecker, president of the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, told me this week.
Yet the Texas oil business slumbers. After President Biden, on Tuesday, announced a ban on importing Russian oil into the U.S., prices topped $123 a barrel, before falling back to $107 as of this morning. And the industry’s response? The number of drilling rigs grinding into the ground in search of hydrocarbons in both West Texas and South Texas has declined by a couple.
This isn’t to say that Texas’s oil output won’t rise in the coming months, especially if the oil and gas crisis unleashed by the war in Ukraine intensifies and the industry’s role as a geopolitical asset grows. We just shouldn’t be surprised by the subdued response. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature of the new energy economy.
For the past few years, the oil industry in Texas has been browbeaten by investors. Wall Street got fed up. No longer did it support piling on debt and outspending cash flow to prioritize double-digit annual increases in production whenever oil prices were high. Investors had learned time and again that an inevitable drop would burn up shareholder value. The new mantras for oil companies are “be sustainable” and “live within your means.” If they make extra money because oil prices are high, give it back to investors.
Look at what happened as oil prices rose steadily from last summer’s dog days, when $62 bought a barrel, to $75 as we rang in 2022, and on up to $88 by February. Then too the reaction in the Texas oil patch was muted. Only a couple of dozen rigs were pulled out of yards and put to work. Many Americans may want the industry to get new rigs up and drilling right now in the name of global security, but you can’t ask the business to change back that quickly. (Well, you can ask, but you won’t like the answer.)
I recently asked Travis F. Thompson about all of this. He’s the 42-year-old chief executive of FireBird Energy, a Fort Worth company active in the Permian Basin. FireBird has been running two rigs for months and is considering adding a third soon, but only because it bought some acreage from Chevron, not because of surging prices. Thompson told me FireBird’s investors—including Canada’s Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and RedBird Capital Partners in Dallas—don’t want it chasing $100 oil. Instead, they want FireBird to reward its investors, yes, but also to meet its environmental goals. Instead of putting more money into drilling, the company has installed infrastructure to recycle its water and a solar project to reduce its carbon footprint. It’s “focused on creating cash flow and sustainable businesses,” Thompson said. “As prices continue to rise, there will be increased pressure to ramp up activity. I don’t think you see companies move too far away from their capital disciplined approach.”
It’s worth listening to him because most of the rigs drilling in the United States, as well as in Texas, belong to private companies such as RedBird. That’s an unprecedented development. According to data compiled by Enverus, an Austin-based energy analytics company, publicly traded Pioneer Natural Resources, based in Irving, has the most rigs running in the Permian Basin, but two privately held companies are close behind: Tyler-based Mewbourne Oil and Midland-based Endeavor Energy—well ahead of industry giants ConocoPhillips, Exxon, and Chevron.
Biden’s ban on Russian oil effectively removed 670,000 barrels a day from U.S. markets, about 7.9 percent of the nation’s imports of crude oil and petroleum products. It’s not clear if the small private companies could make up those missing barrels, even if they suddenly caught a case of patriotic fever. Those kind of numbers need to come from the big public companies.
But don’t expect the Pioneers and other public companies to step on the gas either. Pioneer, which is wholly focused on the Permian Basin, is a standout example of the new reality. In the final three months of 2021, as prices climbed, it gave $1.1 billion back to its investors in the form of dividends. Four years ago, it distributed just $55 million in dividends—for the entire year.
Scott Sheffield, Pioneer’s longtime chief executive, says the company isn’t going back to the old business model anytime soon. Asked about plans to ramp up output last month, he was adamant: “At one-hundred-dollar oil, one-hundred-and-fifty-dollar oil, we’re not going to change our growth rate.” In other words, come what may, they’re sticking to their knitting.
Pioneer is not alone. Most of the big publicly traded companies are in a similar boat. They have been chastised by investors for squandering profits and have promised to genuflect at the altar of capital discipline. At least for now, they have the unflinching fervor of converts. And, looking at the industry’s history, it’s easy to understand why investors don’t care to get burned again. Prices are high now, but what happens if investment flows into the Texas oil patch and within a few months new wells begin producing—just in time to join a tidal wave of new crude from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela that sends prices crashing.
A few days ago, Wayne Christian, chairman of the state’s oil-regulating Railroad Commission, sent a letter to President Biden. “America must unleash our hardworking oil and natural gas producers,” he said. He cited actions he wanted the federal government to take: approving the Keystone XL pipeline and renewing onshore and offshore leasing of public lands. That sounds good and will score political points. But the bottleneck isn’t in Washington, D.C. It’s on Wall Street. Investors bludgeoned oil CEOs into submission long before prices climbed into triple digits.