This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features first-time guest Rick Moncrief of Caiman Energy and Blue Racer Midstream discussing the business of midstream with podcast host Russel Treat.
In this episode, you will learn about how E&P and midstream companies play a vital role in the oil and gas value chain, the cyclical nature of the midstream business, the value of partnerships between producers and midstream companies, how measurement plays a significant role in revenue collection, how fees are typically structured, and other valuable information.
Business of Midstream: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- Rick Moncrief is the retired president and COO of Caiman Energy and Blue Racer Midstream. Connect with Rick on LinkedIn.
- Caiman Energy is a midstream energy company focused on the design, construction, operation, and acquisition of midstream assets.
- Blue Racer Midstream is a joint venture between Caiman Energy and Dominion that is dedicated to providing producers in the Utica and Marcellus shale plays with midstream services and the ability to receive the highest value for their products.
- The oil & gas value chain includes companies at various stages of exploration, transportation, refining, and distribution of product.
- Upstream E&P (exploration & production) companies focus on extracting and removing product from its original source location.
- Midstream companies focus on transporting and refining product, such as pipelines moving product from one location to another. Other forms of midstream transportation include rail cars, truck or cargo fleets, and tanker ships.
- Downstream companies focus on refining and storing product, or distributing product to an end-user.
- NGPA Act (Natural Gas Policy Act of 1978) authorized FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) to regulate intrastate as well as interstate natural gas production.
- Appalachian Basin runs along the Midwest U.S. containing undiscovered conventional oil and gas. According to a USGS study in 2002, there is an estimated 70.2 trillion cubic feet of gas, a mean of 54 million barrels of oil, and a mean of 872 million barrels of total natural gas liquids.
- Marcellus Shale is a rock formation that covers multiple U.S. states in the Northeast and Midwest region. According to the USGS, Marcellus contains approximately 84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas and 3.4 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas liquids.
- Haynesville Shale is a large rock formation that runs through East Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Haynesville contains vast quantities of recoverable natural gas a/k/a shale gas that is second to Marcellus in the U.S.
- Stratigraphy is a branch of geology concerned with the study of rock layers (strata) and layering (stratification).
Business of Midstream: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 168, sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, driving safety, environmental protection, and sustainability across the natural gas and oil industry through world-class standards and safety programs. Since its formation as a standards-setting organization in 1919, API has developed more than 700 standards to enhance industry operations worldwide. Find out more about API at api.org.
Announcer: The Pipeliners Podcast, where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations.
Now your host, Russel Treat.
Russel: Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time. To show ou appreciation, we give away a YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week, our winner is Abbey Will with Marathon Pipe Line. Congratulations, Abbey. Your YETI is on its way.
This week, we have Rick Moncrief, recently retired from Caiman Midstream, joining us to talk to us about the business of midstream. I had a request quite a long time ago for this topic. Rick graciously agreed to join us. Let’s jump right in.
Rick, welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast.
Rick Moncrief: Thank you, Russel.
Russel: I’m so glad to have you on, Rick. I’ve been wanting to have this conversation on the podcast for quite some time. I’m really appreciative of you coming on to talk about the business of midstream. Maybe before we start, you could tell us a little bit about your background and how you ended up in the midstream business.
Rick: It probably wasn’t by design. I’m a petroleum engineer by degree. I started off in the E&P side of the business for about the first five years with Getty Oil Company. Followed that with a stint with TXL Production. TXL was where I got into the gas business, the pipeline side of it anyway.
The business had gotten very slow. Quite frankly, I was concerned about keeping a job. Opportunity presented itself to get into the pipeline side of the business. That was about 1986 for me. That’s where I spent the rest of my career.
Early part of my career was a company called Delhi Gas Pipeline. Then moved on to do sales, assets primarily, to Colt Midstream, to Sid Richardson Gasoline, over to Regency. Most recently, the latter part of my career has been with Caiman Energy.
Russel: Rick, how did your E&P background prepare you for the midstream business?
Rick: Interesting question. Typically on this side, even though I’m a petroleum engineer, petroleum engineers are not big in the midstream side. Most of their focus is downstream or just the operations of the production facilities themselves.
I will say that probably the biggest thing I had that gave me in my career was an intimate understanding of what was important to our customer, who was primarily our producer, the needs they have. What’s important to them, maybe what’s not as important to them. Those are probably the biggest things I took from the E&P side.
Russel: You mentioned also that you made the transition in 1986. I remember that time frame quite well. I remember what was going on in the oil and gas business. What did you learn about the oil and gas business at that time? That was during another time of a pretty significant downturn in our business.
Rick: My primary initial focus was working on tanker pay claims. [laughs] It was trying to undo a lot of the damage from a business that had changed dramatically because of regulations. We got the initial gas bubble because of the NGPA Act, the high price gas out there. People went out and drilled wells that probably weren’t that economical. But the artificial pricing really helped.
When all that went away and those prices started to collapse because we overproduced the needs, we really saw a change. That led to the issues with tanker pay claims that first got me in there.
I guess the biggest thing I took away was how cyclical the business was. I left the E&P side because it was down. We weren’t drilling wells. The future didn’t look very good. The pipeline looked like something that had a little more longevity and some interest to me. Even that, we’ve seen a lot of ups and downs in the business, and that seems to be very much a part of the oil and gas industry.
Russel: If you did a study of the last 50 years, you can see those cycles. I’m always amazed, even in my own thinking, how, when it’s good, I tend to think it’s always going to be good, and when it’s bad, I tend to think it’s always going to be bad.
It’s more like, I think, being a surfer. The whole idea is, you need to know when to paddle, and you need to know when to surf.
Rick: I think we all fall into that trap. There’s no end when it’s good, and there’s no end when it’s bad. I think that is one of the things that, the older you get, you’ve lived through some of that, but it can be very difficult to explain that to those that haven’t.
A lot of our business now is made up of folks that are 40 and under. They’ve seen what we’re seeing right now. They didn’t see what we saw in the ’80s and the early ’90s. It’s been maybe a little cyclical, but not near the dips and the extension or the extended period of time with the downturns and stuff that I’ve certainly been through in my career.
Russel: Ditto. I remember being in Oklahoma City in 1982 when somebody drove through in a pickup truck and turned out all the lights.
Russel: Anyway, that’s not what I brought you on to talk about, but I think it’s good that listeners can hear this from folks that have been in the business for a while, that these are cycles, and there are ups, and there are downs. Just sit up on the board and realize you’re not making the waves, and try to read the weather every once in a while. It’s helpful.
Rick: I think it’s a testament, Russel, to the fact that, as time goes by, the industry has been so adept at figuring out new ways to find production. I just don’t know that we’ve been as adept at what, I’d say, running at true business, watching your balance sheet.
We seem to fall into the traps of what Wall Street wants to see, wants to hear, instead of doing what might be the right thing for your specific business versus just going out and drilling, and drilling, and drilling.
Russel: No doubt about that. The guys that sustain and grow are the ones that are paying attention to their core business. You’ve spent the bulk of your career now in the gas midstream side of the business, and you’ve been involved in a number of startups. How does a midstream company figure out where to go and what to build?
Rick: [laughs] That’s an interesting question. First, you want to go where you think there’s an opportunity. An opportunity can be multifaceted. We’ll take starting a company, which is what we did at Caiman. We had to grassroots-type arrangements that we did.
First and foremost, you tend to look where you know, where you’re familiar with the landscape, the geology, if you will, on a macro scale, not specifically downhole for drilling purposes.
You want to know what the takeaway capabilities are that the transmission lines — if you’re going to be processing, how are liquids addressed after processing? I’m talking about the Y grade stream and the mixed stream for fractionation. What’s the producer set? Are you talking with big majors? Are you talking with independents? Each one of those has a different nuance in trying to cut a deal to make something happen. That’s part of it.
You tend early on to start in your backyard, but in Caiman, we were initially focusing on the traditional areas — Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico. An opportunity came up in Appalachian, and we go, “We don’t know anything about Appalachia.” We started looking into it, and what we found out is that, from our perspective, they look a lot like the southern part of the U.S. back in the ’70s, before deregulation, things hadn’t spun out.
It’s like the industry had passed this area by. Not that there wasn’t production up there, but there wasn’t anything you could point to of any significance since the ’70s or ’80s. We saw, while you look at a map and there was a lot of pipe in the ground, it was low pressure, it was small diameter.
It wasn’t conducive to what we thought the production could be if indeed the Marcellus at the time turned out to be what we thought it would be. That was our fundamental bet, is it would be better than maybe people expected, or, if nothing else, at least as good. That turned out to be the case for us.
We were very fortunate we got into an area with another customer that we have dealt with, who brought us up into the area, a relationship, gave us an opportunity to put something together. That’s the initial step that got us going up in the area.
Russel: I want to compare that to my experience a little bit. I’m an entrepreneur, fancy word. My grandfather called that being a businessman. I’ve started a number of companies, and I think there are some parallels here. You said, first off, go where you know, and where you know the folks.
More on a macro level than specific, but I do think when you’re small, focusing more narrowly can be quite powerful because big companies can’t do that. Big companies have to make bigger plays. I think there’s a lot of parallels there.
The other thing is, you went up to the Marcellus, which probably wasn’t planned, but it looked familiar, and yet it was different enough to provide some big opportunity. Is that a fair replay of what you said?
Rick: Effectively so, yeah. It was a shale play, and we had seen success in particular in the Barnett. We were seeing some success in the Haynesville [Shale] at the time in similar plays, and so we were going up there with the expectation this could really be good. We knew, certainly, it was a big basin.
Some early tests looked promising though, in this play, which is different than most of my career. The first well is your worst well. What I’m getting at here is that, these are not stratigraphic plays where you hit the high points and you drill your best location, first drill.
These are more, for lack of a better term, science projects. They evolve. You figure out orientation to drill, how far to drill a lateral length, what kind of frack. As time goes by, wells improve.
The early results were good, but they were nowhere close to where the production eventually went to. Some of that intel coming from the midstream side, I think it helped us a lot.
I recall talking to a producer one time, and we were talking about putting in a pipeline. We were talking about putting in a 24-inch pipeline in, which we were concerned wouldn’t be big enough. He looked at us and he just said, “I don’t think you need anything bigger than an 8-inch. That will be plenty.”
Of course, as we now found out, an 8-inch can barely handle one well in certain areas in the Marcellus now. It’s just perception and perspective, I guess, when you get down to these areas, and you latch onto what you’ve done in the past and just try to aggregate it as best you can for the situation.
Russel: Then, adapt and learn. Get there, get something working, and then adapt, and learn, and evolve.
Russel: I think that’s thematic, at least at a high level, in any of these kinds of endeavors. When you’re moving in or you’re starting something up, how do you frame up a business from the contract standpoint?
Rick: I’ll say, basically, the contract memorializes each party’s agreement in a situation like this. From the producer’s side, the producer is typically in a position of saying, “I’m going to commit certain things to the midstream provider for a period of time.”
That commitment typically will come in — in our business anyway — a commitment to dedicate my acreage to you guys. What I mean there is that, if I drill on this acreage, it has to come to you. That’s one way of doing it.
Another way is to, look, I know I’m going to have production. I want to reserve X amount of capacity and pay you, either, some people call it a demand charge, some people call it a minimum payment. Regardless, I’m going to guarantee you some level of money in doing that.
Each one comes with different things. The dedication — it is a more risky endeavor. Typically, the fees for that are a little bit higher because there’s no guarantee the producer, one, will be successful, and if he’s successful, how much he’s going to drill.
That’s from a risk-reward or even a relationship program. You have more skin in the game with the producer in that situation because you’re both taking a little bit of level of risk. The main thing you’re trying to do with the producer, he’s making a commitment to you.
From the midstream side, we are going to go out and build facilities and maintain facilities. We are trying to attract business with fees and terms that are long enough, and the fees are appropriate enough to get a return on our investment. That’s the fundamentals that go into a deal, and from there, you start to contract around what that is.
Some of the things that you’re always going to address is, what facilities are we going to build initially? How are we going to handle future productions? All that kind of stuff is lined out.
We’ll talk about operational requirements of both parties, things like where my line pressure will run, what quality gas am I going to take, and how am I going to handle that quality of gas? Things of that nature, what physically has to happen in the field.
Then you get into things like, how are we going to account for this? How are we going to measure this? When we measure it, what’s our frequency of testing, etc., things of that nature.
It’s basically, for lack of a better term, the basis of the deal, but what it is, is, from a midstream side, or the gatherers’ side, it’s the way that we secure our business for the future to support the investment we’re making, and the ongoing expense of that investment.
Russel: Sometimes, when I do these podcasts, Rick, I think sometimes I get to oversimplify things, because there’s a lot I know that goes in, but simplistically stated, the first part is just figuring how we’re going to operate together and how we’re going to share that risk.
There’s a lot bound up in that, and you unpacked that, and then once you’re there, then you figure out how you’re going to get that down into a contract. I think what you said, and one of the things I would encourage listeners that are familiar with this aspect of the business is that the contract memorializes an agreement that’s been developed through mutual effort.
Rick: I hate to say this, but typically, a significant arrangement in our business oftentimes requires up to a year to put together. Between initial talks, letters of intent, proposals, etc. that go back and forth, that’s not uncommon at all — of anything that I would consider sizable.
Russel: I don’t know if it’s a good analogy, but it’s not unlike getting married.
Russel: Because you’re getting into what’s going to be a very long relationship.
Rick: If it works out right, that’s how it should go. Yes, because it is a relationship. I think that’s fundamental to…I will say, the companies I’ve worked for in my particular situation, that’s the essence of what we do, is a relationship. Because you’re going to deal with problems. Things aren’t always going to go well.
You want to understand the needs of your customer, your producer. They need to understand the issues you’re dealing with. The better that relationship is, obviously, I think the better all those issues are handled. I look at this as a service business. In any service business, there is big importance, in my view, on customer service.
Russel: Absolutely. I absolutely agree with that. Ultimately, all businesses are a service business.
Rick: I agree, too.
Russel: The ones that tend to do well are the ones that do service well. How do you get into, actually, the mechanics of fees? You talked about negotiating out all this stuff about how we’re going to operate together. At some point, you’ve got to come up with a structure of ‘How are we going to pay for these services that are being delivered?’ How does that tend to shake out?
Rick: It typically evolves. Let’s go back to, I guess, the early days of the Marcellus as an example. We talked earlier about there’s two basic means of capturing revenue in the midstream business.
One is a fee for service. You flow gas. Whatever you flow, I’m going to charge you a fee for different components. It could be the gathering side of it. It could be the processing fee. It could be for compression.
There are any number of ways to identify the fees. They can be one big fee, and they can be individual fees that apply across a particular stream. Before you get into that, you’ve really got to think about where you are in the development of the play.
When we got in the Marcellus, the Marcellus was new. The drillers were typically independents. They didn’t have big balance sheets. They were taking a lot of risk. When you’re taking a lot of risk, you don’t know what you’re going to get, a lot of factors they were dealing with.
To come out and make a big guarantee to a midstream company like ourselves was very, very difficult for them to do, almost impossible. You’re making a contingent liability when you come out and say, “I’m going to do a 10-year payment to you guys of X millions of dollars to go do this.” You better be sure at that point in time you’re going to be around and you’re going to have the production to back it up.
Where we were in the Marcellus from our perspective as a newcomer dictated a different path. We had to come in and share some of the drilling risk with the producers, step into what we were doing with them. It was a collaborative effort on our part with our customers. Our fees would typically be higher early on because of the risk we were taking. Things had to happen to make that work.
Over time as things were de-risked, if you will, those fee structures would change. We wouldn’t necessarily have it earmarked into the contract. But as producers came and said, “I can’t drill for this anymore. I’ve got this plan,” we would work with them on what that future plan looked like. Reconstruct the contracts accordingly to get this into a win-win situation.
While it’s great to have a big fee, if the fee’s too high, producers can’t drill. You’ve got to balance where you’re trying to get to versus where you’ve been and all that. That’s a big part of the early part of putting a contract together is understanding exactly what it is the producer’s trying to accomplish and what you’re trying to accomplish.
Russel: And what they’re going to need from you in terms of services. I want to ask this question. If I’m new in a market and I’m working with a producer that’s likewise new in a market, and it’s high risk, there’s no history of production from which we can base a future outlook.
I’m doing air quotes here, really helpful on the podcast, but would it be easier to do “payment per unit of flow” or “payment as guaranteed capacity?” I would assume that payment per unit of flow would be more attractive to the producer in that situation. Do I have that right?
Rick: Usually so. Historically, when we talk about these minimum guarantees, it was more to ensure capacity. This mindset or this type of contracting practice started with the downstream transmission lines, where you were buying capacity in their pipeline. They call it a demand fee. That morphed into the midstream side some.
There’s times when producers are in development, and they know where they are, and they’ve got a big position. That makes a lot of sense because, like I said, usually, you’re going to get a lesser fee for that.
Early on in the game, when it’s risky and all that stuff, you can’t afford it, and even if you could afford it, the midstream company is going to want to know that you’ve got the balance sheet to back it up for the term, and if you don’t have that, then you’re not getting anything, if you even got a minimum guarantee there.
Yeah, I would say, this is what we saw, that typically, in our business, the fee for flow, basically, whatever flows is what you paid for, was a better sell early on, at least anyway, than the guaranteed aspect.
Russel: It’s more of a shared-risk approach, I guess would be my takeaway.
Rick: That’s how we view it, too. It is a shared risk, and it truly, I think, lines us up in a partnership situation.
Russel: If you would, tell me a little bit about Caiman and Blue Racer, and what you did there from a contracting standpoint, and how that worked out. I know we talked about that a little bit, Rick, off the mic. I think the listeners would be really interested to hear what you did, and what you think the value of that approach was.
Rick: Russel, it’s multifaceted. While we’re on the theme of how you charge your fees, typically, the fee for service, the fee for flow historically has not been earmarked with capacity guarantee. One of the first things we did was, you can flow your well and we’re only going to charge you for what flows. We’re also going to guarantee you that you’ve got capacity in the plant.
We asked our producers to give us projected forecasts, so we would look at that and build our plans around that forecast. We had the rights to adjust sales forecasts up or down as necessary as we saw things develop and other needs coming up.
The producers had certain rights. Maybe their flows weren’t where they wanted to be, but they needed to hold that capacity, they could actually come in and pay us for…change their fee structures up to guarantee us some things to hold space for them.
That was one thing that I thought was a little more unique to the business of trying to give the producers the comfort they wanted of surety of capacity without the normal structure that they would probably not be willing to afford at the time.
The other thing that we’ve done — I’ve done this all through my career — is we take a different approach to the general business itself. What I’m getting at is, our business, the E&P business, has typically been one that allocates a lot.
What I’m saying there is, you get a wellhead measurement, and anybody in measurement knows that measurement, while very accurate, its accuracy from point-to-point and from time-to-time can change. As you sum all these different points up and you take them to one particular spot, like the inload of a plant, the sum in the field, I guarantee, will not equal the sum at the plant.
Some of that is measurement variance. Some of that’s things falling out and getting vented to the atmosphere, any number of issues there. At the plant level, you’ve got product recoveries that vary with time and in certain situations, you’ve got fuel, etc.
In my career and at Caiman, one of the things that I think has been very beneficial to our business has been the fact that we take a different approach. We actually settle our business at the measured wellhead.
We don’t go back and adjust our actual uses or losses, or things of that nature. We do deduct certain things. If we know we have a compressor on the system, we’ll deduct a percent for fuel. We might deduct a small portion to cover normal losses and stuff like that, blowdowns from when you’re pigging and stuff.
We also — at our plants — we guarantee certain recovery levels. This is often viewed as a pretty risky approach to the business. People say, “What if you don’t make this? What if your recoveries aren’t there, or you have a leak, or what not?” Those are real issues.
What it’s forced us to do is to be on top of our business. The outcome of all this, Russel, I feel, is it’s given us operational excellence in that, if we mismeasure our gas, it costs us money. If we mismeasure, we have to supplement the difference back to the producer. We can’t afford to do that. Not on a large scale.
From time to time, it happens, but what it has forced us to do is make sure that our measurement in the field is right, as right as it can be. We do a lot of subsystem balancing to ensure that we don’t have a leak, that our meters are working well, we balance into the plant, we balance out of the plant with our sales meters, and we are very sophisticated on how we do that.
We watch our fuel. We don’t allocate that back. If we have a system that’s underperforming, we’ll make adjustments accordingly.
From our perspective, this puts the burden back on us to watch our system right, because if we didn’t do these things, take as an example, a compressor that’s burning two percent more fuel than it should, we’ve got to go make a big expenditure to change that, but we get nothing out of it, other than a reduced cost of fuel for our producer, but nothing comes back to us.
The allocation either, in my mind, forces the company, at times, to make bad decisions from an operational excellence capability perspective…
Russel: Good financial decisions become bad operational decisions.
Rick: Right, because every dollar we spend has to be justified, and it’s hard to justify then that, “Well, I’m going to do this so that the producers get a benefit, but I get nothing.”
It’s not that we’re one-sided, but that’s just reality. Businesses don’t operate that way. We’ve been very successful. It’s helped us differentiate ourselves in the industry, and I do think it helped our relationships with our customers.
Russel: The idea of balancing from the tailgate of a fractionator, back to the wellhead, probably a lot of people in measurement, a lot of people in gathering, that would make their head blow up.
Rick: It can be pretty complicated, but yes, you’re right.
Russel: It’s certainly non-trivial, and it affects everything about how you operate, how you measure, all kinds of things throughout the entire process gets affected by that.
If you add to that, “Any of the losses are on me,” you’ve got to be on it to do it that way. Rick, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to bring you on, because I actually think that’s quite brilliant, frankly, because what it does is, it aligns the midstream operator and the producer where they’re both trying to get to the same thing.
Rick: Russel, another aspect of it that’s much simpler is, it is so much easier on accounting. When your unallocated system, a well anywhere on the system gets changed, and that happens all the time, as you know, in measurement. We always have issues with measurement we have to go back and correct.
Anybody’s measurement change affects everybody on the system, so you’re constantly going back and resubmitting statements. The producers have to go back and re-do his royalties. It’s just a chain of events that, it’s a daisy chain of events, basically, when you get down to it.
This is so much simpler. What we find is, producers have been willing to give us levels, whether it’s fuel, or loss unaccounted for levels or recovery levels that are maintainable. We don’t promise 100 percent of everything. It’s unrealistic to think you’re going to be perfect every day.
I think the numbers we have are certainly doable. Obviously, in my perspective, if we got the business, we had to be competitive, so they’re competitive. I never thought we’d be in a position, and I’ve never seen it where just because who we are means we get a better fee and we get things that are out of market, so we’ve always had to be in-market.
I think it’s just, like I said, a simpler means, and it requires operational excellence. All that means, for the producers, “My well stays on better.”
Russel: Let me wrap this up by asking this question. What advice would you give to young engineers in midstream that are looking at making this a career? What advice would you give to them?
Rick: [laughs] From my perspective, and we’ll talk from a business perspective here, is, understand the importance of your customer, and understand the relationship that needs to be built for that to be successful. As always, just do the right thing. Do what you would want done if the shoe was on the other foot.
If you take that, pretty much in any business, I don’t think ours is much different. This is still a relationship business, and you would be shocked at how small this business is. No matter where you go, you run into somebody you’ve dealt with in the past if you’ve been in this business for a while.
Russel: I can confirm that. I was on a platform offshore the Horn of Africa, and we had mutual friends. [laughs] That’s how small the business is.
Russel: Rick, this has been great. Again, I appreciate you coming on and sharing all this. It’s quite educational for me, and I really appreciate it.
Rick: Thank you, Russel. I’ve have enjoyed it, too, and I wish you the best.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast, and our conversation with Rick. Just a reminder before you go, you should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinerspodcast.com/win to enter yourself in the drawing.
Russel: If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d be interested in, please let me know on the Contact Us page at pipelinerspodcast.com or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.
Transcription by CastingWords