The Other Shoe Drops: Exxon Cuts Reserves Total by 20%

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You can’t say you weren’t warned. After markets closed on Wednesday, Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) announced that its proved reserves total at the end of 2016 amounted to 20 billion barrels. The total includes a reduction of 3.5 billion barrels at the company’s Kearl oil sands project in Alberta and another 800 million barrels scattered around North America.

At the end of 2013, when crude prices were near $100 a barrel, Exxon reported proved reserves totaling 25.2 billion barrels and a total resource base of about 91 billion barrels. At the end of 2014, with crude priced at about $53 a barrel, total proved reserves totaled 25.3 billion barrels and the company’s total resource base rose to more than 92 billion barrels.

By the end of 2015, with crude trading around $37 a barrel, total reserves had slipped to 24.8 billion barrels and the total resource base had dropped back to around 91 billion barrels. At the end of 2016, the total resource base remained at around 91 billion barrels.

At current production rates, Exxon’s proved reserves will last for 13 years, down from 16 years at the end of 2015, 17 years at year-end 2014, and 16 years at the end of 2013. Over the past 10 years, Exxon said it has added proved oil and gas reserves totaling approximately 13 billion oil-equivalent barrels, including the impact of asset sales, replacing 82% of produced volumes.

By definition, proved reserves are calculated as the number of barrels that can reasonably be expected to be produced at current economics. Kearl oil sands production falls well above that range, even though crude prices reached nearly $54 a barrel at the end of 2016.

Exxon, however, said it still operates the Kearl mine and plans to develop other Canadian projects going forward. The Kearl barrels could be added back to the company’s proved reserves total if crude prices rise or if operating costs fall.

The company defines “total resource” and “total resource base” to “include quantities of discovered oil and gas that are not yet classified as proved reserves but that are expected to be ultimately recovered in the future.”

Exxon’s reserves decline had been telegraphed, so investors and traders had time to price in last night’s officially announced decline. The fact that the drop was no worse than expected helped lift the company’s stock price by nearly 0.5% in Thursday’s premarket trading.

Last year, S&P dropped its AAA rating on Exxon to AA+ due primarily to low prices for crude. Even after the cut, Exxon’s credit rating was the best among the supermajor integrated energy producers. Today’s announcement could lower that rating again, but that seems unlikely with crude prices rising again. One thing is certain, though: the rating won’t go back up.

The other factor helping to lift crude prices is Wednesday evening’s report from the American Petroleum Institute that U.S. crude inventories had dropped by 884,000 barrels and that gasoline inventories had fallen by 893,000 barrels. This is first time in six weeks that crude inventories have fallen, although the more closely watched inventory report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration won’t be out until mid-morning Thursday. Analysts are looking for an inventory build of around 3.5 million barrels.

Exxon’s stock closed at $80.93 on Wednesday, in a 52-week range of $80.02 to $95.55. Exxon stock is down more than 10% year to date, making it the worst performer among the Dow 30 stocks. The consensus 12-month price target on the shares is $88.57.