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Chevron’s first loss in decades signals hard time for oil giants

The Pascagoula facility is Chevron's largest wholly-owned refinery. It processes 330,000 barrels, or 13.9 million gallons, of crude oil a day, which according to the company website is equivalent to the size of a football field covered 40 feet deep.
The Pascagoula facility is Chevron's largest wholly-owned refinery. It processes 330,000 barrels, or 13.9 million gallons, of crude oil a day, which according to the company website is equivalent to the size of a football field covered 40 feet deep. Sun Herald File

Chevron posted its first annual loss since at least 1980, signaling the difficulties faced by the world’s biggest oil companies as they struggle to emerge from the worst collapse in a generation.

The company had a $497 million loss last year and failed to replace all of the crude and natural gas it pumped with new reserves, San Ramon, California-based Chevron said in a statement on Friday. Shares slumped the most in four months.

Pascagoula is home to the company’s largest U.S. refinery, which processes 13.9 million gallons of crude oil a day, according to the company website.

As the first so-called supermajor oil company to post year-end results, Chevron’s results may herald bleak news for an industry battered by the oil-market crash that began in mid 2014. After hundreds of thousands of job cuts, billions of dollars in asset sales and the accumulation of staggering debt loads to endure the collapse, investors have been optimistic that oil producers who survived the darkest days are on the cusp of a new era of growth.

Fourth-quarter net income of $415 million, or 22 cents a share, was lower than all 20 estimates from analysts in a Bloomberg survey. During the final three months of 2016, the company’s refineries earned $357 million, less than half the $762 million expected by analysts at Barclays Plc. Narrower margins and downtime at a California plant eroded performance in the business, according to the statement. Shares were down 2.7 percent at 9:33 a.m. in New York, the most since Sept. 13.

Chevron added the equivalent of 900 million barrels of oil to its reserves last year, or 95 percent of what it produced, according to the statement. The new reserves involved oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan, Australia and the Permian Basin beneath Texas and New Mexico. Reserves are a key indicator of future profit potential for investors.

Chevron announced plans last month to curtail spending on drilling and other projects for a fourth straight year, a stark contrast to U.S. shale explorers who are responding to the uptick in crude prices with ambitious expansion plans. While Chevron is cutting its budget for 2017 by 15 percent, shale drillers Continental Resources Inc. and Diamondback Energy Inc. are lifting spending by 77 percent and 48 percent, respectively.

Despite the belt-tightening, Chevron is on pace to spend about $2 billion on shareholder dividends each quarter. That equates to about $1 million an hour. Bigger rival Exxon Mobil Corp. is set to disburse about $3.1 billion per quarter in payouts.

Chevron’s disclosure will be followed by a slew of oil company earnings releases in the next two weeks: Exxon is scheduled to report results on Jan. 31, followed by Royal Dutch Shell on Feb. 2, BP on Feb. 7 and Total on Feb. 9.

Brent crude, the international benchmark, averaged $51.06 a barrel in the final three months of 2016, 16 percent higher than a year earlier, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. U.S. natural gas posted an even stronger 42 percent gain to average $3.177 per million British thermal units for the quarter.

Chevron’s statement was released before the opening of regular U.S. equity trading. Among analysts, Chevron has 20 buy ratings, nine hold recommendations and no one urging investors to sell.

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