Bob Ravnaas raised a paddle in a Houston auction house to secure his first block of mineral rights 19 years ago, when oil prices were swooning below $20 a barrel.
A generation later, that same West Texas oilfield is still spinning off royalties, part of a mineral-rights empire amassed by Ravnaas that stretches across 20 states and delivers millions of dollars in cash payments. Kimbell Royalty Partners LP, where the former petroleum engineer is now chief executive officer, has stakes in 48,000 oil and natural-gas wells in some of the hottest US shale patches. These days, it’s not alone.
America’s drilling boom is making a hot commodity out of one of the stodgiest of oilfield assets, the monthly royalty check. Lured by the promise of steady returns without the cost of actually operating wells, companies like Kimbell are racing to acquire rights around the US. Private-equity giants including EnCap Investments LP and Blackstone Group LP are getting into the game as well, pouring billions into the market.
“It’s become a very attractive investment,” said Ravnaas, whose Fort Worth, Texas, company went public in February with a $90 million offering. “Oil and gas production has increased dramatically in the last ten years, and the size of the royalty market is increasing exponentially along with it.”
Drillers have negotiated with landowners for decades to tap the reserves below their acreage. But mineral rights have taken on new value as advanced drilling techniques sparked a renaissance in oilfields across the US The rights guarantee holders an upfront bonus when an operator decides to drill and a cut of revenues for each barrel sold thereafter.
The growth in interest has been fueled by generational turnover. As time has passed, mineral rights have been passed down and diluted among successive generations. Descendants now see better value in packaging and selling off those rights for an upfront payment or equity in the new minerals companies, Ravnaas said.
In what was once a mom-and-pop business, $20 million deals with Texas cattle ranches or other major landowners have become more common, according to the CEO. Speculators are knocking on doors and blanketing mailboxes in hot shale plays, hoping to amass mineral rights for cheap before the drilling companies arrive.
Royalties typically range from an eighth of the per-barrel price to as high as a quarter in coveted areas like the Permian shale basin in Texas and New Mexico. Rights-holders aren’t on the hook for operating or financing costs to run the wells, although their income does depend on a driller’s willingness to keep pumping. Crude futures have fallen 14 percent in New York this year and were at $46.53 a barrel.
“It’s effectively a zero-cost exposure to the minerals” said Brian Brungardt, a Stifel Nicolaus & Co. analyst in St. Louis. He tracks Kimbell and two other royalty-chasing partnerships, Black Stone Minerals LP (no relation to the equity firm) and Viper Energy Partners LP.