Oil and gas after COVID-19: The day of reckoning or a new age of opportunity?

he oil and gas industry is experiencing its third price collapse in 12 years. After the first two shocks, the industry rebounded, and business as usual continued. This time is different. The current context combines a supply shock with an unprecedented demand drop and a global humanitarian crisis. Additionally, the sector’s financial and structural health is worse than in previous crises. The advent of shale, excessive supply, and generous financial markets that overlooked the limited capital discipline have all contributed to poor returns. Today, with prices touching 30-year lows, and accelerating societal pressure, executives sense that change is inevitable. The COVID-19 crisis accelerates what was already shaping up to be one of the industry’s most transformative moments.

While the depth and duration of this crisis are uncertain, our research suggests that without fundamental change, it will be difficult to return to the attractive industry performance that has historically prevailed. On its current course and speed, the industry could now be entering an era defined by intense competition, technology-led rapid supply response, flat to declining demand, investor scepticism, and increasing public and government pressure regarding impact on climate and the environment. However, under most scenarios, oil and gas will remain a multi-trillion-dollar market for decades. Given its role in supplying affordable energy, it is too important to fail. The question of how to create value in the next normal is therefore fundamental.

To change the current paradigm, the industry will need to dig deep and tap its proud history of bold structural moves, innovation, and safe and profitable operations in the toughest conditions. The winners will be those that use this crisis to boldly reposition their portfolios and transform their operating models. Companies that don’t will restructure or inevitably atrophy.

A troubled industry enters the crisis

The industry operates through long megacycles of shifting supply and demand, accompanied by shocks along the way. These megacycles have seen wide swings in value creation.

After the restructurings of the early 1980s, the industry created exceptional shareholder value. From 1990 to 2005, total returns to shareholders (TRS) in all segments of the industry, except refining and marketing companies, exceeded the TRS of the S&P 500 index. Oil and gas demand grew, and OPEC helped to maintain stable prices. Companies kept costs low, as memories from the 1980s of oil at $10 per barrel (bbl) were still acute. A new class of supermajor emerged from megamergers; these companies created value for decades. Similarly, the “big three” oil-field service equipment (OFSE) companies emerged. Political openings and new technologies created opportunity for all.

From 2005 to January 2020, even as macro tailwinds such as strong demand growth and effective supply access continued, the global industry failed to keep pace with the broader market. In this period, the average of the oil and gas industry generated annual TRS growth about seven percentage points lower than the S&P 500 (Exhibit 1). Every subsegment similarly underperformed the market, and independent upstream and OFSE companies delivered zero or negative TRS. The analysis excludes companies that were not listed through this period (including some structurally advantaged national oil companies, and private companies).

Exhibit 1

In the early years of this period, the industry’s profit structure was favorable. Demand expanded at more than 1 percent annually for oil and 3 to 5 percent for liquefied natural gas (LNG). The industry’s “cost curves”—its production assets, ranked from lowest to highest cost—were steep. With considerable high-cost production necessary to meet demand, the market-clearing price rose. The same was true for both gas and LNG, whose prices were often tightly linked to oil. Even in downstream, a steep cost curve of the world’s refining capacity supported high margins.

Encouraged by this highly favorable industry structure and supported by an easy supply of capital seeking returns as interest rates fell, companies invested heavily. The race to bring more barrels onstream from more complex resources, more quickly, drove dramatic cost inflation, particularly in engineering and construction. These investments brought on massive proved-up reserves, moving world supplies from slightly short to long.

Significant investment went into shale oil and gas, with several profound implications. To begin with, shale reshaped the upstream industry’s structure. As shale oil and gas came onstream, it flattened the production-cost curve (that is, moderate-cost shale oil displaced much higher-cost production such as oil sands and coal gas), effectively lowering both the marginal cost of supply and the market-clearing price (Exhibit 2).

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About the authors: Filipe Barbosa is a senior partner, Scott Nyquist is a senior adviser, and Kassia Yanosek is a partner, all in McKinsey’s Houston office. Giorgio Bresciani is a senior partner in the London office, where Pat Graham is a partner.