By Jennifer Hiller and John Benny
NEW YORK, March 5 () - The two biggest U.S. oil companies tried to outdo each other on Tuesday, boasting about their prowess in shale to lure investors to their side.
Chevron Corp and Exxon Mobil Corp released dueling Permian Basin projections that, if realized, would cement the rivals as the dominant players in the West Texas and New Mexico field, with one-third of Permian production potentially under their control within five years.
The stakes are such that Exxon on Tuesday forecast shale production of 1 million barrels per day in the Permian as early as 2024, grabbing the spotlight on the day Chevron was making a case in its oil growth.
"Our investors don't need to wait several years for the story to come together," Chevron Chief Executive Mike Wirth said in an apparent dig at Exxon, which has been investing heavily in the Permian to reverse production declines. "We're delivering now."
The Permian Basin pumps around 4 million barrels per day now and IHS Markit expects it to hit 5.4 mbd in 2023, more than the total production of any OPEC country other than Saudi Arabia.
Wirth said at a press conference that he had been "busy" and had not seen Exxon's Permian goal, which was released while he was speaking to analysts. He said, however, that Chevron's production could exceed 900,000 barrels daily if the company decided to increase drilling rigs from the 20 currently in operation.
"It's a decision we haven't taken yet but we certainly have it under active consideration," Wirth said. "It's a good story that could get even better."
Oil companies are trying to win back investors after years of underperforming other industrial sectors and the S&P 500. The weighting of energy shares in the S&P 500 index fell to 6 percent in 2018, from 8.4 percent four years earlier.
Like Exxon, Chevron has begun to emphasize achieving faster payoffs from investments in shale rather than the megaprojects of the past.
"The key driver of cash flow growth over the medium term remains the Permian, which continues to perform ahead of expectations," said Biraj Borkhataria of RBC Europe Limited.
Chevron said it expects global production to rise 3 percent to 4 percent annually through 2023.
Executives said the company would return more cash to investors this year through dividends and $4 billion in share buybacks aiming to achieve a 6 percent shareholder return.
The company also raised its estimate of its reserves in the Permian, in Texas and New Mexico, to 16.2 billion barrels of recoverable resources from 9 billion.
The San Ramon, California-based company expects to sell assets worth between 2018 and 2020, including production assets in Denmark, Azerbaijan and Britain'sNorth Sea.
The company's annual capital expenditure is expected to be in the range of $19 billion to $22 billion between 2021 and 2023.
Chevron expects to spend $3.6 billion in the Permian Basin and another $1.6 billion in other shale fields. Chevron's other shale holdings include the Marcellus in the Northeastern U.S., the Duvernay in Alberta, Canada and the Vaca Muerta in Argentina.
Wirth also touched on Venezuela, where Chevron, the largest U.S. oil company still in operation there, is under pressure from U.S. sanctions. He said Chevron's employees are safe and its operations are "in good shape," and that it has taken "the long view" on the country. Wirth said he continues to talk with U.S. government officials.
"We're trying to be sure that we understand the policy objectives of the government and the government understands the ramifications of policy actions they might take," Wirth said.
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