Down-Under Energy Opportunities: Ivor Ries

The Energy Report: Your firm has been in the investment business for over 120 years. Can you give us an overview of the energy markets and the challenges and opportunities that energy companies in Australia face?

Ivor Ries: Australia has historically been the quarry and energy source to emerging Asian economies. As a result, our economy is inextricably linked with the progress of China, Korea, Japan, India and the other Southeast Asian economies. Initially, we were mostly a supplier of minerals, but in recent years, the liquefied natural gas (LNG) markets have become a very large part of our economy. We have two very large LNG projects in production and a third smaller one in Darwin. Another five LNG projects are now under construction, which will more than triple Australia’s LNG output over the next five or six years.

The LNG boom has its pros and cons. The investment spending is a huge boost to our economy, but it also has caused a huge shortage of contractors and manpower. The price of labor has gone through the roof in any business related to oil and gas. An unskilled laborer working on an LNG project in Australia is probably paid somewhere between two and four times as much as he or she would be elsewhere. Australia has very tight restrictions on labor coming in. At the moment, the industry is forcing the government to change that. The government recently announced it is going to reduce the visa requirements for American and Canadian oil and gas workers, so they can help plug that gap. That would be a huge relief for the industry. We have a very heavy-handed set of regulations here, and there has been a lot of media hysteria surrounding fracking, particularly in the coal-seam gas areas and a very strong campaign to have fracking stopped. Anyone running coal-seam gas or unconventional gas here has to run through a very stringent and time-consuming environmental approvals process, which probably adds two to three years to getting a project off the ground. When it comes to the cost of getting things done, everything takes longer and is more expensive than expected. That’s frustrating.

TER: What’s the breakdown of Australia’s energy production versus its consumption of oil, gas, coal and other energy sources?

IR: The domestic market in Australia is overwhelmingly coal driven. Australia is the world’s largest seaborne coal exporter, and our domestic power industry runs about 80–85% off coal and to a smaller extent off hydroelectric power and gas. Cheap coal gives us very low-cost baseload power across the entire economy. A population of only 23 million (M) people is just not enough to create a significant market for gas, and that has resulted in a terrible oversupply. Until we started shipping LNG, gas prices were incredibly low. We’re just now starting to see the connection between the domestic gas price and export prices. Typically, for the last five years, the price for gas on the east coast of Australia was about $3.50 per million British thermal units (MMBtu). Now we’re starting to see some longer contracts being signed at about $7–8/MMBtu.

TER: Do LNG exports offer a big potential opportunity?

IR: Yes. In Australia, unlike the U.S., the mineral resources belong to the government. So the people who own the land do not own the minerals underneath. In the States you have the overriding royalty system where the landowner typically gets a percentage of the production. Here in Australia, the state government gets a royalty that is typically about 10%. The net cost of producing coal-seam and conventional gas is very low. There is a good network of pipelines on the east coast for moving the gas around where cash production costs, particularly from the better coal-seam gas fields, are typically less than $1/MMBtu. That’s very cheap. With an LNG plant, the price is now around $12–13/MMBtu. Even after the pipeline charges and the LNG plant operating costs, that is quite a big margin. In the recent years, we’ve had quite a lot of consolidation with global names buying up the smaller coal-seam gas players to increase their reserves and have a bigger stake in LNG.

TER: Are most Australian energy companies geographically diversified with operations in other countries?

IR: Our bigger companies here tend to be multinationals, like BHP Billiton Ltd. (BHP:NYSE; BHPLF:OTCPK), Rio Tinto (RIO:NYSE; RIO:ASX) and Woodside Petroleum Ltd. (WPL:ASX). The Australian market is so small that to grow beyond a certain size, you have to become multinational in some way. The next tier down is a huge drop in terms of size. Our biggest pure domestic gas play is probably Origin Energy Ltd. (ORG:ASX). It has about a $16 billion (B) market cap.

TER: About how many energy-related public companies are there in Australia?

IR: There are a lot. Our market is a bit like Calgary in that we have a lot of really small exploration companies here. There are probably more than 250 listed energy companies on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX).

TER: You have a fairly broad range of companies in your coverage list in terms of stage of development, type of business and the price of the stock. How do you decide what companies you want to cover?

IR: Many companies are working on a lot of small things. Our chief criteria is the company has to be involved in pursuing one or more core projects where the central resource is at least 100 million barrels oil equivalent (Mboe). Otherwise, there’s no point. Companies chasing smaller projects tend to burn through shareholders’ capital and then ask for more. We figure if you chase a 100MMbbl target and you derisk it, you may not actually produce it, but someone will come and pay you some real money for it. So that’s the first criterion. The other criterion is the quality of the management. Once we feel comfortable in that area as well, the company goes onto our coverage list. But as you can see, there are not many.

TER: What are your favorite companies right now?

IR: The ones that stand out to me at the moment are companies like Karoon Gas Australia Ltd. (KAR:ASX), which is a midsize explorer/developer with an LNG project in Australia and a huge exploration project ahead in Brazil. Molopo Energy Ltd. (MPO:ASX) and Red Fork Enegry Ltd. (RFE:ASX) are essentially American companies that happen to be listed on the ASX. Molopo has acreage in the Bakken in Saskatchewan, Canada and a project in the Wolfcamp play in the Permian Basin in Texas. It has about 25,000 net acres in Texas. We’re very excited about that. Red Fork has about 75,000 net acres in the Mississippi limestone play in Oklahoma. It has been getting some good results from its early wells there. We think these stocks are all very undervalued relative to the size and quality of the land positions they have. The next 12–18 months for all three will be exciting because they have a lot of wells going in and production will be ramping up. If they get a reasonable run of drilling success, their share prices will be significantly higher than they are now.

Molopo’s Wolfcamp drilling areas are surrounded by a lot of very big players getting some really good results. These include EOG Resources Inc. (EOG:NYSE), El Paso Pipeline Partners L.P. (EPB:NYSE), Approach Resources Inc. (AREX:NASDAQ), ConocoPhillips (COP:NYSE), Pioneer Southwest Energy Partners L.P. (PSE:NYSE) and Devon Energy Corp. (DVN:NYSE). On some of their better wells, those guys are getting over 1.8 Mbpd from long laterals. Molopo has drilled three short lateral wells so far, and all have flowed oil. It is about to crank up production and put in somewhere between 8 and 10 wells there by year-end. Long, lateral wells will target much higher flow rates than achieved to date. As the company derisks the project, the market will really appreciate that asset.

TER: What about Red Fork?

IR: Red Fork is up in the Mississippi limestone area in Oklahoma. That’s a real hotspot, and the last time I looked, there were 240 drill rigs running in the area. Red Fork is run by some very experienced oil guys out of Tulsa. It’s had a couple wells on pump so far and has been getting some nice oil flows, and is about to crank that up. Red Fork has a very big land position. It will be getting a big following from the States as its production cranks up, going to somewhere between 10–12 wells this year. Toward the end of the year, I wouldn’t be surprised if its production was getting close to 2 Mbpd.

TER: Does that hold up or does it taper off relatively quickly?

IR: Because it has so much acreage, it will just keep drilling. I think it will eventually have more than 300 well locations that it can drill there. It will certainly be able to grow its production by just steadily increasing the footprint there. Its neighbors are getting 30-day initial production rates around 350–550 bpd on pretty low-risk wells. If it can string together a whole bunch of those, we think it will then be seen as a serious company. At the moment, Australians see Red Fork as purely speculative and they haven’t really bought the story yet.

I should talk about Karoon Gas Australia Ltd. for American investors. Over the years, it has looked long and hard at whether it should actually be listed in America simply because the Australian market is probably struggling to value it. It has three projects, including a huge gas condensate field discovery in a joint venture with ConocoPhillips in the Browse basin off the northern coast of West Australia. That’s the Poseidon fields, which have estimates ranging anywhere between 3 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) and 15 Tcf gas, with a P50 estimate of around 7 Tcf gas, and a reasonably high condensate cut in that. It’s drilling another five wells there with Conoco this year to get it to the point where it can have bankable reserves and then start going out and looking for customers. It’s not really an exploration project anymore, but more of an appraisal development-type thing. It will require very big capital and a contract offtake for at least 4 million tons (Mt) LNG before that project will stand up. We’re talking an $18–20B capex to get that project up and going. Karoon is the junior partner in that. It originally scoped it, found it and then took it to the market, and Conoco farmed into it. Since then, it’s just working it up to the point where it can start signing up customers. That’s its number-one project.

The other two projects are in Brazil and Peru. In Brazil, it won five blocks in a government tender two years ago. It has spent a huge amount of money and time on 3D seismic and developed a large number of 200–300 MMbbl targets there, which it will start drilling in the second half of this year. This is a very high-impact exploration program. Before it does that, Karoon is almost certainly going to farm it out to a larger player because it lacks the people and manpower to carry out a project of that size alone. Degolyer & McNaughton have done some work on this and estimate around about 900 MMbbl potential in those five Karoon blocks. So we’re expecting a strong interest in it.

TER: So that amounts to about $90B in the ground, correct?

IR: Yes. These are huge targets in not terribly deep, but not shallow water, either. These are $80–100M wells, and Karoon will be looking for someone to make a commitment to at least three wells and fund its back costs. Anyone coming through probably has to have a check in their pocket for $500M. That farm-out process is now almost complete with the partner announcement expected around mid-May, and drilling starting in the second half of the year. It already has a drill ship contracted so whoever buys into it is getting a fully worked-up project and it’s going to get instant excitement as soon as it buys.

In Peru, Karoon has some onshore and offshore leases with potential for up to 700 Mboe. Again, it’s looking for farm-in partners for that. The approval will probably come out toward the end of the year. This is a company that is chasing really big, high-impact projects. The stock is generally not held by Australian institutions. Most of the non-aligned shareholders are American pension and hedge funds and high net worth individuals.

TER: So it is definitely working in elephant country.

IR: That’s right. With these sorts of companies, the only way you can value them is by applying a probability or a risk factor to the chance of success. Poseidon is definitely a project. We just don’t know how big or how valuable it is. You have to apply some probability to the rest of the stuff. We end up with a valuation range of between $7.04 and $17.35/share. It is about $6 at the moment. Our midpoint value is $12.20. These are risked valuations with pretty heavy risk factors so if one of these things in Brazil, in particular, turns into a discovery, then obviously that valuation would increase very dramatically. It’s a high-risk, high-reward kind of stock, not for the faint-hearted.

TER: Are there any other companies you’d like to talk about or mention?

IR: In big-cap land, Origin Energy has been a great performer over the years. Its share price is really suffering at the moment because the market is so concerned about cost blowouts on LNG projects. It’s building a $20B LNG project with Conoco up in Queensland. Because other project costs are blowing out, the market is very wary, and its stock has really been sold off over the last 12 months. We think it’s really an excellent company, with about $2.5B/year cash flow from its domestic operations. It’s a really great business that’s been one of the best performers in the Australian market for as long as it’s been listed. If anyone wanted to play the big and liquid way, certainly Origin would be the standout.

TER: How would you summarize the big picture on energy investment opportunities in Australia?

IR: We think there is certainly a lot of value in Australia. Our market is somewhat thin and illiquid, so we don’t have the depth of analysis. We have a lot of companies often holding U.S. assets, which actually trade at a huge discount to what they would do in their home market. If you’re selective, you can find some real bargains here.

TER: Thanks again for joining us today

IR: Thank you.

Ivor Ries is a senior analyst and director of industrial research at E.L. & C. Baillieu Ltd., a long established stockbroking firm with offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Bendigo and Newcastle. Ries joined the world of stockbroking in 2001 after a 22-year career in media, included reporting and commentary roles with The Age, Business Review Weekly and The Australian Financial Review. Ries joined E.L. & C. Baillieu in July 2001. The firm specializes in research and corporate advice for medium-sized industrial and resource companies and counts many of the country’s major institutional investors as clients. Ries’ areas of specialization are utilities, oil and gas and online media and e-commerce. A native of Queensland, Australia, Ries lives in Melbourne with his wife and daughters. He is a Brisbane Lions supporter.

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1) Zig Lambo of The Energy Report conducted this interview. He personally and/or his family own shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: None.
2) The following companies mentioned in the interview are sponsors of The Energy Report: Molopo Energy Ltd. Streetwise Reports does not accept stock in exchange for services.
3) Ivor Ries: I personally and/or my family own shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: Karoon Gas Australia Ltd. and Molopo Energy Ltd. My employer, E.L. & C. Baillieu, has acted as broker to and earned commissions and underwriting fees from Karoon Gas Australia Ltd., Molopo Energy Ltd. and Red Fork Energy Ltd. in recent years. I personally and/or my family am not paid by any of the following companies mentioned in this interview. I was not paid by Streetwise Reports for participating in this story.

( Companies Mentioned: AREX:NASDAQ,

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