There's a new breed of buyer in the oil patch. Or rather, several nontraditional ones and they're having a heyday as publicly traded producers struggle to scrape together financing for deals.
The pairing of Torxen Energy, which is anything but a household name, and Schlumberger Ltd., the world's largest oil field service company, is the latest example – and won't be the last as oil and gas prices remain under pressure.
Torxen and Schlumberger agreed to pay $1.3-billion for Cenovus Energy Inc.'s Palliser properties, an extensive spread of acreage in southern Alberta rich in both oil and gas. It is the third of four targeted asset sales launched by Cenovus following its own takeover of ConocoPhillips Co.'s oil sands and natural gas interests earlier this year.
At first blush, it looks like an immense bite for privately held Torxen, a startup headed by John Brannan, who was once Cenovus's chief operating officer. Torxen will operate the venture, and that makes sense given Mr. Brannan's institutional knowledge of the properties. But most of the money is being put up by Houston-based Schlumberger.
The oil service company has already invested sizable sums in production companies and oil projects in Nigeria, Argentina and the United States in a transformation of its business model. The deals give it the opportunity to benefit from selling the commodities rather than just raking in fees for services such as fracking and completing wells.
As exclusive service provider at Palliser, the arrangement will also keep its Canadian crews working while the partners run through a list of 1,600 planned wells over several years. The two companies had teamed up earlier on a smaller patch of land in the same neighbourhood.
The deal follows the sale of Cenovus's Suffield, Alta., properties last month to International Petroleum Corp., a company controlled by the Swedish-Canadian Lundin family. The Lundins are far better known for investments in energy and mining ventures in developing countries than in conventional Canadian oil and gas. IPC is paying $512-million in a debt-funded transaction.
Other enthusiastic bidders for oil and gas properties, often auctioned by domestic producers under pressure to slash debt, have included companies financed with private Chinese capital. Such buyers have plunked down a total of around $3-billion on numerous assets and companies in Western Canada, with little fanfare.
All of these buyers have squeezed in the door as crowds were exiting. Back when times were good, or just not as bad, the asset market followed a well-established routine. A public company could identify properties it liked, excite Bay Street with its plans to develop them, launch a share sale to finance the deal, then scout for the next one.
Supportive commodity prices kept the deal flow gushing. A couple years into the oil price collapse, however, debt reduction became job one and assets were put on the block in grand fashion as companies sought to stay on side with lenders.
In 2017, the script has had a rewrite. Energy, especially Canadian energy, has fallen out of favour with major investors around the world as oil prices languish around $50 (U.S.) a barrel and fears linger that new export pipelines could be delayed longer, or even dashed.
The aftermarket has been a cruel place for some companies that issued shares to fund acquisitions. None more so than Cenovus, whose stock tumbled following its $17.7-billion (Canadian) ConocoPhillips acquisition over concerns about the pile of debt it took on. The deal, announced in March, included a $3-billion stock offering at $16 a share, a level to which Cenovus has not climbed back since. Cardinal Energy Ltd. has also been punished after it issued $170-million worth of stock to finance an acquisition from Apache Corp.
Even some of the most experienced private-equity investors have had a rough ride, and have moved off to the sidelines.
In contrast, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. said little after acquiring Cenovus's Pelican Lake heavy oil assets for $975-million, and has had an easier ride on the stock exchange. The company has the financial muscle to snap up the operations without having to issue shares, essentially making it the exception that proves the rule.
In the meantime, expect more of the unusual and unfamiliar groups making the rounds in downtown Calgary to find bargains as the tried-and-true producers remain decidedly gun shy.