ExxonMobil scales back shale ambitions to focus on lower costs, dividend preservation

ExxonMobil is trying to convince a skeptical Wall Street that it can rebound after years of overspending. PHOTO: REUTERS

HOUSTON (REUTERS) - ExxonMobil is lowering its ambitions for oil and gas output, it said on Wednesday (March 3), as it focuses on cutting costs and preserving dividends to win back investors that have soured on the company after years of overspending.

The top US oil producer, which on Tuesday announced it will cut 300 jobs of 7 per cent of its workforce in Singapore, incurred a historic loss of US$22.4 billion (S$29.86 billion) last year. ExxonMobil is trying to convince a skeptical Wall Street that it can rebound after years of overspending left it deeply indebted and lagging behind rivals better geared for a world demanding cleaner fuels.

ExxonMobil last year fell out of the Dow Jones index of top US companies and shares fell to a two-decade low. Activist investors are pushing it to lessen its reliance on fossil fuels.

"The priority right now is to rebuild the balance sheet," ExxonMobil chief executive Darren Woods said on a media call following a virtual analysts day that emphasized the company's commitment to lower spending and reducing debt, which has ballooned to US$67.6 billion from US$37.8 billion two years earlier.

That said, some analysts criticized ExxonMobil's spending plans, saying the company's focus is likely to shift more to oil than gas, unlike rivals Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell. It is also taking a measured approach to spending in its low-carbon group as other global oil giants aggressively move towards renewable projects.

Mr Woods reaffirmed plans to keep annual project spending at or below US$19 billion in 2021 and between US$20 billion and US$25 billion through 2025. Production will remain largely flat at around 3.7 million barrels of oil and gas per day.

Previously, Mr Woods had planned to hike spending to as much as US$35 billion per year to build production, but has reversed course after costly misfires on US shale and Canadian oil sands.

ExxonMobil shares rose 0.8 per cent to US$56.52. The stock is up more than a third this year, but over the longer term trails broader averages.

Oil and gas production spending will focus on Guyana, Brazil and US shale oil. The company expects its 400,000 barrels of daily output in west Texas and New Mexico to rise to about 700,000 by 2025, "based on market conditions," said senior vice president Neil Chapman. Two years ago, it forecast 1 million barrels per day in the Permian as early as 2024.

Overall output is likely "to steadily shift from gas to liquids, which is at odds with most peers," said Biraj Borkhataria, analyst with RBC Capital Markets.

ExxonMobil vowed to increase its investments in carbon capture and storage as part of a new low-carbon business. Such efforts will account for about 3 per cent of new spending, ExxonMobil said, up from 1 per cent previously.

"It is still far from the double-digit levels of companies such as Shell and Total," said Pavel Molchanov, analyst with Raymond James.

ExxonMobil expects US$2 billion of a proposed US$3 billion in savings from workforce reductions and efficiencies, said Andrew Swiger, chief financial officer. It has said it could cut around 14,000 employees and contractors, or 15 per cent of its global workforce, by the end of the year.

Engine No. 1, an activist firm that is trying to place four new directors on ExxonMobil's board, was critical of the company's efforts.

"ExxonMobil today presented a vision of the future that we believe risks continued long-term value destruction, including a lack of serious diversification efforts and the hope that carbon capture will enable the company to avoid long-term evolution," the firm said in a press release.

On Monday, ExxonMobil named activist investor Jeffrey Ubben and former Comcast executive Michael Angelakis to its board as it attempts to assuage investor concerns.

"Maybe the best news about the board additions is that the 'our way or the highway' position that ExxonMobil has taken for many years may be changing," said Mark Stoeckle, senior portfolio manager at Adams Funds.

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