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Coronavirus, consolidation taking toll on energy jobs

Published 10/30/2020, 01:09 AM
Updated 10/30/2020, 01:40 AM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A long exposure image shows the movement of a crude oil pump jack in the Permian Basin in Loving County

By Jennifer Hiller

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Oil and gas companies worldwide are taking an axe to their employment rolls, shedding workers to survive what is expected to be a prolonged stretch of weak demand.

Exxon Mobil Corp (N:XOM) said it will cut its workforce by 15%, or about 14,000 people, along with oil majors Chevron Corp (N:CVX) and Royal Dutch Shell Plc (L:RDSa).

All told, more than 400,000 oil and gas sector jobs have been cut this year, according to Rystad Energy, with about half of those in the United States, where several big exploration companies and most large oil service companies are headquartered.

Coronavirus has devastated swathes of the global economy, with energy, travel and hospitality among the industries hit hardest. Energy companies were already struggling with weak returns, particularly those operating in U.S. shale regions, but have had to double down on cost cuts as investors pressure companies to improve margins.

"The COVID-era reality across the oil industry is austerity on an epic scale. There is no escaping the fact that this means, among other things, job losses," said Pavel Molchanov, analyst at Raymond James.

In addition to Exxon, Chevron Corp, Australia's Woodside (OTC:WOPEY) Petroleum Ltd (AX:WPL) and Canada's Cenovus Energy Inc (TO:CVE) all announced plans in recent weeks to cut staff.

Global fuel demand slumped by more than a third in the spring. While consumption has recovered somewhat, it remains lower than a year ago with major economies resuming lockdowns to contain the pandemic.

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The downturn has been particularly harsh in the United States, the world's largest crude oil producer. The nation has recorded the most deaths from coronavirus, and the damage from the pandemic has sent unemployment to about 8%.

U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said it is unlikely to return to the peak, near 13 million barrels per day, reached in 2019, largely through the use of fracking technology used by shale companies. The shale industry has been hit hard by the pandemic because it is easy for oil firms to cut staff and spending in the sector.

Fracking has become a hot-button issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. Democratic challenger Joe Biden wants to limit fracking on federal lands, while incumbent President Donald Trump has pushed for more drilling, and argues Biden's position would destroy jobs.

Consolidation is helping drive job cuts. Chevron plans to eliminate roughly 25% of the staff acquired with Noble Energy (NASDAQ:NBL), which it acquired this month. Shell said its oil output likely peaked last year, and it plans to cut roughly 10% of its workforce. Cenovus said it will cut 25% after it buys rival Husky Energy Inc (TO:HSE).

In Australia, more than 2,000 oil industry jobs have been cut since March, including at Exxon and Chevron. Top independent gas producer Woodside said earlier this month that it would cut around 8% of its workforce.

Mohammad Barkindo, secretary general of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, recently expressed concern that the pace of oil demand is below expectations, potentially requiring major producers to maintain production cuts.

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Not all companies are throttling back. PetroChina Co Ltd (SS:601857), Asia's largest oil and gas producer, reported a 350% surge in profit from a year earlier.

In an outlook released earlier this month, BP (NYSE:BP) Plc laid out two scenarios that suggest world oil consumption, roughly 100 million barrels per day, peaked last year. BP Plc (L:BP) recently cut about 50% of its exploration team as it shifts operations towards renewable energy development.

Currently, futures markets suggest crude prices (LCOc1) (CLc1) may not advance beyond $40 a barrel for at least two more years due to weak demand, and that could limit hiring.

"The practical reality is when you have oil prices in the $30 to $40 range, I don't think many companies have the luxury to wait for a recovery," said Alex Pourbaix, chief executive at Cenovus.

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