Why I’m avoiding Tullow Oil plc like the plague

Energy goliath Tullow Oil (LSE: TLW) was recently dealing higher in Wednesday trading, despite slashing its 2016 output target. Indeed, the fossil fuel play remains within striking distance of recent 15-month highs of 288p per share.

Production targets fall

Tullow Oil announced that net oil production from West Africa is likely to clock in at 64,000-67,000 barrels per day in 2016, down from its prior estimate of 62,000-68,000 barrels.

First oil at the company’s TEN project off the coast of Ghana had been achieved back in August on time and within budget. But Tullow Oil advised today that

production ramp up has been slower than expected due to water injection commissioning taking longer than planned which has limited the volume of water injected to date.”

In better news, however, Tullow Oil confirmed that it will begin to generate free cash flow during the current quarter, and added that

we are well placed to begin the process of both refinancing and paying down our debt in 2017.”

Fears over the company’s financial health have long dogged the black gold producer, which expects to record net debt of $4.9bn at the close of 2016.

Cash concerns

That is not to say that Tullow Oil is quite out of the woods, even after inking $345m worth of new loan commitments from existing lenders in October. The business believes the new commitments

will largely offset the impact of the scheduled amortisation in April 2017 and will ensure Tullow has appropriate headroom throughout 2017 as it refinances its bank facilities.”

But the very-real possibility that oil prices could remain depressed around or below the $50 per barrel marker could put paid to Tullow’s optimism.

Indeed, the company’s decision today to reduce its 2016 capital expenditure forecast to $900m, down from a prior estimate of $1bn, illustrates the ongoing pessimism washing  over the sector. And capex in 2017 is expected to clock in at a much-more-modest $300m-$500m.

Investors remain hopeful that exploding volumes following the TEN startup will drag earnings higher again and soothe pressures on the balance sheet. But if Tullow Oil encounters further operational or financing problems, and crude prices fail to meaningfully recover, I reckon its share price could reverse sharply. And a P/E rating of 17.7 times for 2017 leaves plenty of room for a correction.

Wood you?

But the oil producers are not the only ones to suffer from a period of prolonged oil price woe, of course. Tullow Oil’s decision to rein in its capex budgets mirrors similar moves by industry giants like BP and Statoil in recent weeks, and bodes badly for the likes of John Wood Group (LSE: WG).

The engineering giant, like Tullow, has also seen its share price surge in recent weeks. Indeed, Wood Group’s share price hit levels not seen since mid-2014 in October, with news of new contract wins from Hibernia and Suncor Energy bolstering investor confidence.

But the prospect of oil market oversupply dragging for longer than expected leaves Wood Group in danger of facing further revenues pressure in the near-term and beyond. Like Tullow Oil, I reckon investment in the oilfield services play is far too risky at the current time.

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Royston Wild has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended BP. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.