Nearly a century after Chevron amassed the No. 2 stake in America's largest oilfield, Chief Executive John Watson is hitting the accelerator on developing the firm's Permian Basin holdings.
HOUSTON, April 5 (Reuters) - Nearly a century after Chevron Corp amassed the No. 2 stake in America's largest oilfield, Chief Executive John Watson is hitting the accelerator on developing the company's vast Permian Basin holdings.
In an interview, Watson made clear his desire to put the West Texas to New Mexico expanse in the ranks of Chevron's biggest ventures. That is a stark change from just five years ago, when Chevron executives rarely mentioned the shale basin.
But with low oil prices, the company is now spending more than it makes to cover its prized dividend and find new reserves. Now, those 2 million Permian acres have emerged as to way to help fund both goals.
"Some of the best things we have in our portfolio are the shales," Watson said during an interview on the 48th floor of the company's Houston office tower. "My employees in the Permian know I'm featuring it as something very important."
Gone, for the next few years at least, are plans for any new multi-billion-dollar mega-projects, he said. To survive and grow, San Ramon, California-based Chevron is turning to acreage it has always controlled and that largely is free of royalties to landowners.
"We're just in a period now where markets are weak and everyone is focused on controlling costs," Watson said.
Within a decade, Watson expects Chevron's production in the Permian to grow eightfold to more than 700,000 barrels of oil per day. By the end of next year, nine drilling rigs will join the 11 that Chevron already has poking holes into Permian land.
It is all part of Watson's plan to methodically pump Chevron's more than 9 billion barrels of Permian oil, most of it owned outright by the company. That gives Chevron a cost advantage over rival Permian producers as the region in the past year has become the epicenter for the U.S. shale resurgence.
Chevron's Permian portfolio, which was acquired in stages by predecessor companies, is worth at least $43 billion, Chevron believes, greater than the market value of Pioneer Natural Resources Co, Concho Resources and other Texas producers.
Watson bristles at critics who say the company is moving too slowly in the Permian. "We're growing our portfolio in the Permian as fast as anyone," said Watson, an economist by training who has worked at Chevron his entire career.
"We're focused on growing value and growing the dividend over time."
Chevron is valued more highly by investors than rival Exxon Mobil Corp partly because of that dividend, which has risen annually for the past 29 years. Watson has called protecting the $1.08 quarterly payout his top priority.
"We like inexpensive, recurring revenue streams" such as the Permian, said Oliver Pursche of wealth manager Bruderman Brothers LLC, which holds shares in the company.
Chevron, which does not hedge oil production, is boosting spending in the Permian by 67 percent this year to $2.5 billion, an implicit bet that oil prices will rise and lift the company to a profitable year after an annual loss in 2016.
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