Falling Crude Oil Prices Shell
An employee stands by rows of oil barrels at Royal Dutch Shell's lubricants blending plant in Russia. Plummeting crude oil prices are forcing major energy firms to slash investments in new projects for 2015. Reuters

The latest drops in global crude oil prices are forcing more energy firms to slash investment in next year’s production. Brent benchmark prices jumped slightly Thursday on news of the scale-backs, but investors say they are still skeptical that oil will recover enough to justify more big-ticket projects.

Brent crude ticked up 3 percent to above $63 a barrel, recovering from a five-year low of $58.50 this week -- nearly half of what oil traded for back in June, Reuters reported. Prices have fallen as global output, including U.S. shale oil, continues to outstrip the weakening demand in key economies such as Europe and China.

Chevron Corp. said Wednesday that it has put plans to drill for oil in the Canadian Arctic on indefinite hold, citing “economic uncertainty in the industry.” Houston-based Marathon Oil Corp. announced it will spend 20 percent less next year on oil exploration and production due to “the continuing dynamic change in crude oil markets.”

Canadian producers Husky Energy, MEG Energy and Penn West Petroleum also slashed their plans for spending in 2015.

Oil and gas companies will make decisions on 800 projects worth $500 billion next year, Lars Eirik Nicolaisen, a partner at Oslo-based Rystad Energy, told Bloomberg News. If oil prices average $70 a barrel in 2015, energy firms could pull $150 billion, or 30 percent, of projected investment from exploration projects worldwide, he said.

Fadel Gheit, managing director of oil and gas research at Oppenheimer & Co. in New York, explained that oil companies typically analyze how investment projects will pan out at difference oil prices and rank them based on expected return. "Those projects that yield returns about the hurdle rate, based on certain oil prices considered to be sustainable, are approved, while those that could not make the cut are delayed or canceled," he said by email. The lag time between falling prices and decisions to cut projects "is usually a few months, but less than a year."

Over the next decade, low oil prices could put almost $1 trillion in future projects at risk, a separate Goldman Sachs analysis found earlier this week. The investment bank studied 400 of the world’s largest new oil and gas fields. It found that more than two-thirds of projects are unprofitable with oil at $70 a barrel. If all of those projects were canceled, it would mean a loss of oil production equal to 8 percent of current global demand, Bloomberg News noted.

The Goldman analysis excludes U.S. shale fields, but a separate study found U.S. production could drop 40 percent in 2015 at current prices, according to ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington-based financial research group. Such a drop would unravel years of economic recovery in top U.S. oil states such as Alaska, Oklahoma and Texas.

"The planning timeline for shale projects tends to be quite short and highly flexible," Kevin Book, managing director at ClearView, said in an email. "Drilling can begin in as little as 30 to 90 days after the corporate decision to proceed. It can also stop in that timeframe." For more capital-intensive projects like deepwater drilling, by contrast, decisions can take years to move forward, and postponing projects can delay them by years.

Book said that in general, energy companies of all sizes tend to make spending decisions in November and early December, which means that many firms were revisiting their 2015 capital outlays just as crude prices dropped below $70, and then below $60, a barrel, and as interest rates on corporate debt rose. "This suggests to us that some measure of capital cuts are still in process, yet to be announced and likely to imminently emerge," Book said. He said the scaled-back investments could lead to "imminent and potentially meaningful job cuts by operators and service companies."

If oil prices hover around $65 a barrel next year, the global energy sector could see the biggest drop in project finance in decades, a Sanford C. Bernestein analysis cited by Bloomberg found.