​Oilpatch optimism expected to rise as difficult second quarter finally ends

A rebound in oil prices as consumer demand for gasoline rises will buoy energy companies as they give quarterly results starting next week, but analysts say there are still too many uncertainties to expect any new spending in the sector.

The second-quarter reporting season for Canadian major oil and gas producers begins July 22, with results from Calgary-based Suncor Energy Inc.

The three months ended June 30 were marked by depressed oil prices blamed on a glut of oil from members of the OPEC-plus group, followed by a severe decline in fuel demand as pandemic lockdowns kicked in.

The price impact led to about $8.6 billion in announced capital budget cuts by producers of Canadian oil.

The average price of benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude fell to about US$27.85 per barrel in the period, less than half of the US$59.82 registered a year earlier – a slide that included closing for the first time at a negative level on one day in April amid fears that North American crude storage was nearing its limit.

The price has been above US$40 per barrel for most of June.

“While three months ago we would have proclaimed Q2 results to likely be a complete writeoff in terms of relevance for investors, we no longer feel that way,'' said analyst Michael Dunn of Stifel FirstEnergy in a report.

He predicted upside surprises in second quarter cash flow from operations for Suncor and Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and higher-than-expected oilsands bitumen production from MEG Energy Corp. and Cenovus Energy Inc.

Investors will be keenly interested in progress in cutting costs and in forward guidance for the rest of 2020 and 2021, he said, adding concerns about financial liquidity have largely dissipated thanks to recent successful debt financings.

Canadian energy companies are taking heart from falling crude storage levels and ample export pipeline capacity to bring back oil output voluntarily shut down over the past few months, said Phil Skolnick, an analyst for Eight Capital.

He said the second quarter will be the worst this year for most energy companies.

“They're going to be impacted by very low oil prices in March, and then that was offset partially by the increase in oil prices but, nonetheless, this (quarter) will basically be the bottom for earnings and cash flows for this year,'' he said.

He says his sources indicate that about 500,000 barrels per day of Canadian oil production has been returned to service from the total of about 800,000 bpd taken out as prices reached their lows.

Optimism will be offset by fears of more economic disruption if there's a major second wave of the pandemic, along with the growing risk of more pipeline headaches after recent U.S. court setbacks for projects including the Keystone XL, Line 5 and Dakota Access pipelines.

Companies with refining assets are expected to report very low utilization rates due to the economic slowdown but their profit margins will be bolstered by the low price of oil feedstock, Skolnick said.

He said demand is up in North America for gasoline and diesel but remains depressed for jet fuel.

© 2020 The Canadian Press

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