Opinion

A focused Lens on Permian private players

Vencer moves into US upstream as Hunt Oil pivots away

Benjamin Shattuck

Research Director, Americas Upstream Oil & Gas

Benjamin leads our US upstream analysis and specialises in the Lower 48.

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Last month, Hunt Oil Company sold its 44,000 net acre position in the Midland Basin in the US to Vencer Energy. While the transaction value hasn't been officially disclosed, reporting has alluded to a figure above US$1 billion. Considering that Vencer cited 40,000 boe/d of production, and the core location of some of the leases, they may have secured a good deal. In this article, we drill into the details.

Background to the deal: Hunt’s position

This sale is part of the storied private company’s wider pullback from US upstream. The company sold Texas enhanced oil recovery (EOR) properties last year and the family appears to be pivoting its US energy business more towards power. Its Bakken assets saw a small uptick in activity in 2018, but without the Midland the portfolio is now in decline. With Eagle Ford and Appalachian properties also sold, Hunt is now reliant on the success of projects in Peru and Iraq.

The Midland package has an interesting history. Two acquisitions from Opal and Merit in 2012 and 2013 gave Hunt scale in Glasscock and Upton counties. Some of the properties sit on University Lands. And in 2016, facing many of the same funding challenges as its peers, Hunt engaged TPG Sixth Street Partners to fund a US$400 million DrillCo for the project. The DrillCo capital was exhausted in 2019, after drilling peaked in 2018 with over 80 wells spud. One of the reasons Hunt could grow production over 400% since the DrillCo started was the existence of sliding scale royalties on some leases.

DrillCos formed during that time typically had return thresholds of 15% — in our view it’s unlikely that hurdle has been met yet for many of the wells.

Introducing Vencer

Vencer Energy is a newly formed private exploration and production company, backed by commodity trader Vitol, which had no assets before this deal. The company’s stated strategy in the Lower 48, however, was to acquire large, mature properties with proved, developed, producing reserves (PDP). With its base production of over 40,000 boe/d, the Hunt property fits the bill. We have some concerns around the decline rate, particularly considering Hunt’s rapid growth and the general decline curves of surrounding Wolfcamp wells — more on this below. Nonetheless, with a sharp pullback in drilling the asset should generate meaningful cash for the time being.

For Vitol, however, this could be more of a value chain play. Owning US production might be a strategic tie-up with its prior interest in owning key crude export infrastructure in Corpus Christi (Vitol was linked to Hilcorp receiving a permit from the Port of Corpus Christi in 2017 to scope an export facility). Export-linked pipelines like Cactus, Grey Oak, and EPIC are adjacent to Hunt’s old leases too. If the export play is real, we see some parallels to LNG players like SK and Continental who have bought into US gas assets over the past few years.

This asset isn’t the first upstream move for Vitol, but it’s a big one nonetheless.

This asset isn’t the first upstream move for Vitol, but it’s a big one nonetheless. Vitol owns conventional assets in Ghana, entering the country in 2006 by taking up an exploration position – notably in the Cape Three Points block. Eni farmed in and subsequently made discoveries leading to the development of the Sankofa field. But Vitol has relinquished other exploration blocks in Ghana due to a lack of success. And in other international projects, Vitol has funded development capex and retained access to lift crude volumes. If Vitol was looking to take equity in fields, this US deal might have been a long time coming.

Assessing the transaction: scenarios and charts

This is Vencer's first US upstream purchase and the company will need to retain key knowledge from the Hunt team. Even though Vencer seems to be built around a light capex model, more drilling will likely be needed to maintain a reasonable decline rate. As a result, there’s a lot to unpack in the valuation.

So, what’s the potential of the deal for Vencer? We’ve used our Lens Subsurface data to assess how future wells might perform. We also value PDP under several scenarios.

Modelling the deal

With little disclosure around the deal, we’ve used Wood Mackenzie Lens to model one possibility of how the entire asset may have been valued for both Hunt and Sixth Street. Key knowns include acreage, production, and subsurface quality. Key unknowns include Hunt's working interest (per the cost carry) and the discount rate Vitol may have assumed. Another important variable is future drilling. The properties can support additional development, but on the surface that appears outside of Vencer’s business model.