Exxon’s Natural Gas Confession Bad For All; Maybe An Earnings Warning? (XOM, CHK, BP, ECA, COP, DVN, EOG, APC, UPL, STR, UNG)

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At a meeting in New York this morning, Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) CEO Rex Tillerson said that his company is “losing our shirts” on natural gas production. Did he just notice that prices have fallen below the cost of production?

And Exxon is not alone. The other top producers of natural gas — Chesapeake Energy Corp. (NYSE: CHK), BP plc (NYSE: BP), Encana Corp. (NYSE: ECA), ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP), Devon Energy Corp. (NYSE: DVN), EOG Resources Inc. (NYSE: EOG), Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: APC), Ultra Petroleum Inc. (NYSE: UPL), and Questar Corp. (NYSE: STR) — are suffering from an identical problem.

The spot price for natural gas fell below $2/thousand cubic feet earlier this year, and has jumped recently to trade at around $2.84/thousand cubic feet today. Only the Marcellus shale play can post a production cost anywhere near that number. Other natural gas plays all boast production costs above $3.50/thousand cubic feet.

Another consideration related to Tillerson’s remarks is whether this could be a roundabout way of telling investors that quarterly earnings are going to be weak. After all, the company is losing money on natural gas and crude prices are falling at the same time. The consensus estimate for Exxon’s EPS in the June quarter is $2.03, down from $2.37 in the same period a year ago and below the consensus estimate of $2.08 from just a month ago.

According to Exxon’s 2011 annual report, US natural gas production costs averaged $3.45/thousand cubic feet at consolidated subsidiaries and $5.08/thousand cubic feet at equity companies. Production costs for a US-produced barrel of oil were $90.65. Today’s WTI spot price at the Cushing, Oklahoma, hub is $79.75/barrel.

Exxon’s US production costs for crude oil are lower than in any of its other regions. The global average in 2011 was $100.79. With Brent crude at around $92/barrel today, that’s not a good sign either.

The numbers don’t look all that good for Exxon to do much more than meet expectations, and that by the skin of its teeth. And meeting expectations is often not good enough for investors.

Exxon’s shares are trading at $82.96 today, up about 0.7% in a 52-week range of $67.03-$87.94. The United States Natural Gas Fund (NYSEMKT: UNG) is up 3% today at $19.75 in a 52-week range of $14.25-$46.40.

Paul Ausick

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