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Exxon Mobil Corporation (XOM), Royal Dutch Shell plc (ADR) (RDS.A), Chevron Corporation (CVX): Bad Omen for the Future of Mega-Oil Projects

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Seven years and $24 billion.

No, that isn’t the price tag for a major project coming online. That’s how late and how much over budget the giant Kashagan oil project in the Caspian Sea ended up being before it started flowing this week. Bringing in multiple stakeholders on these complex, challenging megaprojects in the energy industry has become a pretty nasty cocktail for those involved. Are the blunders with Kashagan an exception or the rule when it comes to these major projects? Let’s look at some other major projects going on right now to see what Big Oil has in store for its next big move.

Big bucks, little bang

Source: Eni Media Relations.

The project to bring the world’s largest oil discovery in the past 30 years has so far been mired in delays, cost overruns, and overall headaches for pretty much everyone involved. With the current bill standing at $48 billion for a paltry production of 375,000 barrels per day divided up among seven companies, the project is averaging a capital cost of $80,000 per barrel of production capacity. To put that in perspective, conventional oil projects in Saudi Arabia today are about one-fifth of that amount.

Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM) — a company that prides itself as one of the best capital allocators in the business — estimates that it will take beyond 2040 for this project to make a reasonable rate of return. In fact, both it and partner Royal Dutch Shell plc (ADR) (NYSE:RDS.A) have repeatedly threatened to pull out of the project because of contentious negotiations with the Kazakh government, delays, and a lack of operational control over the project.

Trouble Down Under

Some might say that the troubles with the Kashagan project are rooted deeply with the negotiations with the national government. Even in regions where there is a more friendly operating environment, though, companies are still struggling to keep projects on budget. Case in point: Chevron Corporation (NYSE:CVX)‘s Gorgon project in Australia.

Source: Chevron Media Relations.

When Chevron Corporation (NYSE:CVX) and its partners Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM) and Royal Dutch Shell plc (ADR) (NYSE:RDS.A) gave this mega-LNG project the green light in 2009, the group estimated that the final bill would be about $37 billion. Eventually, though, currency rate changes, bad weather, and ballooning labor costs have pushed the project to more than $52 billion. Fortunately for Chevron Corporation (NYSE:CVX), which has a nearly 50% stake in the project, construction is about 67% complete, and the delays on the project can be measured in months and not years. Once operational, it will represent about two-thirds of the company’s production growth target for 2017. The question remains, though, whether the flood of new LNG export facilities coming online between now and the end of the decade will erode at the pricing advantage the project had when it was established.

The next victim

The next mega-oil project has yet to come online. But when Petroleo Brasileiro Petrobras SA (ADR) (NYSE:PBR) starts gathering assets in the upcoming pre-salt auction, it’s almost certain that the project will run into cost overruns and delays. One of the big issues with operating in Brazil is that the government mandates that a certain percentage of parts and labor come from domestic sources, which has led to inflated costs. Rig company Diamond Offshore has stated that it adds almost 15% to dayrates for rigs and drillships destined for Brazil to cover the higher labor associated with working there.

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