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Capital spending not increasing as fast as profits, BoC survey finds

Energy producers setting aside just 40% of cash flow for investment, down from 100% before pandemic

By Meghan Potkins

Capital spending continues to take a back seat to shareholder returns for Canadian oil and gas companies.

Canada’s central bank used its latest quarterly business survey to consult energy companies about how they intended to spend the windfall from triple-digit oil prices, and found that producers are setting aside just 40 per cent of estimated cash flow for capital expenditures, compared with an average above 100 per cent in the years prior to the pandemic.

That’s useful information for the Bank of Canada because it suggests that models based on historic relationships between oil prices and investment will be less useful at guessing how surging commodity markets will influence economic growth and inflation over the rest of the year.

Crude and gas prices soared as the global economy recovered from the COVID recession, and then jumped again after Russia invaded Ukraine. But Canadian energy companies have not been using that revenue bonanza to invest in new projects or sites to the same extent as during previous booms. Instead they are using cash flows to shore up balance sheets and reward shareholders.

The curtailment in capital spending follows last year’s decline that saw the sector’s capital expenditures drop to 60 per cent of cash flow.

“Financial discipline remains a top priority for firms,” the central bank said in the Business Outlook Survey, released July 4. “After many years of financial stress, most producers are using the current revenue windfall to improve their balance sheets, reduce their debt and pay dividends to shareholders.”

Where companies reported they were investing in production, it was largely at the margins of existing projects.

“Many conventional oil and natural gas producers are focusing on expanding drilling in areas where supporting infrastructure is readily available,” the report said, while also noting that producers of heavy oil are improving efficiency and maximizing capacity utilization for existing oilsands projects.

The central bank interviews representatives of 100 businesses each quarter to get a sense of how the economy looks from ground level. During the latest poll, which was conducted in May, policymakers also discussed the state of the oil and gas industry with executives from 13 different companies, along with three energy analysts at charted banks in Calgary. The group reported that high commodity prices driven by a global supply shortage have improved profit margins, heightened activity in the sector and contributed to positive sentiment overall.

But concerns over the transition to low-carbon energy, future limitations on pipeline capacity and infrastructure development continue to weigh on the industry which expects just modest growth in capital investment over the medium term.

Labour shortages and supply chain issues have also made investment more challenging and the industry faces significant cost increases.

“Drilling and other well-service pricing was reported to be up by 10 to 15 per cent over the 2021-22 winter season,” the bank said. “Some participants anticipate further increases by the end of the year.”

Experts say the reduction in capital spending can be partly attributed to the fact the sector is still emerging and rebuilding from a period of sustained low prices.

A decade of low oil prices has made Canadian producers learner and more efficient, Lisa Baiton, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) said at a Calgary conference last week.

“An industry known for outspending its cash flow is now focused on generating value,” Baiton said. “At the start of the recovery, companies changed their focus from survival to rebuilding their businesses after all of those hard years. Repairing their balance sheet, compensating shareholders for their patience while working to attract them back.”