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October 17, 2018 11:45 AM, EDT

Colorado Voters Could Play Role in Determining State’s Oil Output

Oil drilling Jamie Schwaberow/Bloomberg News

BP’s new U.S. onshore oil headquarters in Denver serves as a testament to Colorado’s regal mountains, expansive forests and nature-loving culture.

Aspen trees line the BP club room, newly installed beer taps await local craft brews, multiple stone fireplaces invite cozy discussions about ski conditions, and a 52-foot pine tree, sliced in half, serves as a conference table.

Whether Coloradans want the tribute is another matter.

On Nov. 6, voters may spoil BP’s welcome. That’s when it will be decided whether to limit drilling in an initiative that some say could cut the state’s oil output by more than half. The vote is being closely watched, not only by companies keen to join the Colorado boom but also by outsiders who see a potential blueprint for blocking development.

BP moved its office from Houston weeks before the proposition hit the ballot. Colorado has been drawing drillers whose interest has been piqued by production that’s climbed 10-fold since 2001 to a record 450,000 barrels a day in April. Along with Noble Energy Inc., Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and others, BP is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar war over the state’s environmental future.

Oil graph

Bloomberg News

“The long-term impact is quite significant,” said Matt Andre, an energy analyst at S&P Global Platts. “It’s about the precedent being set, and it working its way to other states.”

At issue is Proposition 112, which requires that new drilling sites, processing plants and gathering lines be more than 2,500 feet from homes, schools and other “vulnerable” areas. In effect, it makes 54% of surface land inaccessible to producers.

If the measure passes, production could fall 55% by 2023, according to an S&P analysis. But Andre sees that as just a best-case scenario: “It assumes that people who can drill will drill,” he said. “But you have to imagine that some people will move to other plays.”

The stakes are extraordinarily high. By July, Colorado overtook Alabama to become the nation’s sixth-largest oil producer. In 2016, the government estimated that the state had 1.3 billion barrels of proved oil reserves.

In the meantime, the latest campaign filings show opponents to the proposition have put more than $34 million into defeating it, including $300,000 contributed by BP on Oct. 2 and $6 million each overall from Anadarko and Noble Energy.

Oil rig drilling on land

Gas drilling taking place on public lands. (Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

That compares with just $809,000 raised by proponents. And so far, polling puts passage of the measure at just 30%.

These companies “don’t just have to win,” said Ethan Bellamy, a senior analyst at Robert W. Baird & Co Inc. “They have to win by a mile to take the risk overhang out of the stocks. If Proposition 112 wins, the stocks will get torched.”

BP isn’t the only company to show renewed interest in Colorado, even amid efforts to restrict development in the state. Wyoming gas producer Ultra Petroleum Corp. in September moved its headquarters from Houston to Denver, part of a plan to consolidate operations.

Even Noble, which last year shifted operations to Texas, has reallocated activity back to the Denver-Julesberg basin amid pipeline bottlenecks expected to slow growth in the prolific Permian Basin.

Significant Blow

For Denver-based companies with operations outside the state, such as BP, opposing the ballot measure is a matter of principle. But for pure-play producers, the proposition could be a significant blow. Independent explorers Extraction Oil & Gas Inc., PDC Energy Inc. and SRC Energy Inc. saw their shares fall after Colorado put Proposition 112 on the ballot.

Other Companies Exposed:

  • Highpoint Resources Corp.

  • Bonanza Creek Energy Inc.

  • Whiting Petroleum Corp.

  • Anadarko Petroleum

  • Nobel

Some companies are doing what they can to mitigate the impacts of the measure.

Highpoint, for instance, is evaluating the drilling of longer laterals, Chief Financial Officer Bill Crawford said. Others are rushing to secure drilling permits ahead of the vote. Extraction Oil & Gas anticipates having more than three years of drilling inventory permitted and “ready to go” if the measure passes, CEO Mark Erickson said on a second-quarter earnings call.

Anadarko, which holds 400,000 acres in the D.J. basin, already has announced plans to trim new production in the region, even before the measure made it onto the ballot.

‘Uncertainty’

“There’s uncertainty,” Bloomberg analyst James Blatchford said. “Anadarko might reduce activity in the DJ basin but [isn’t] likely to leave entirely.”

A BP spokesman declined to comment on what impacts if any, the measure might have on that company. BP opposes the proposition, like its fellow producers, and its Lower-48 unit plans to increase its share of oil production, amid low gas prices. But it hasn’t announced new exploration in the state.

The company now operates more than 1,300 wells in the Colo. portion of the San Juan basin but is weighing selling those assets following its $10.5 billion acquisition of most of BHP Billiton Ltd.’s onshore U.S. fields. It also owns and operates a natural gas plant near the N.M. border that can process as much as 280 million cubic feet a day.

BP

Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

Politically, BP is trying to straddle both sides. While the company opposes the ballot measure, it casts itself as broadly supportive of Denver’s environmental goals.

“This is a city and a state that cares about the environment — we see ourselves as a partner in that,” Dave Lawler, CEO of BP’s lower 48 unit, said in an interview last month. “This is one of the many steps of how we’re transforming the company.”

Lawler insisted that the Denver office is here to stay, regardless of the referendum’s outcome or the potential sale of BP’s holdings. The decision to relocate to Denver rested largely on the state’s “entrepreneurial mindset,” he said. “And in Denver, certainly, a technology emphasis that we want to be part of the company long-term.”