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Oil Major Total Plans Biggest Exploration Drive in Years

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Total is launching its biggest exploration campaign for years in 2019 as part of a turnaround plan that is ditching the company’s focus on risky long-shots in favor of areas known to contain commercial levels of oil or gas.

The French major aims to drill 23 wells this year, its senior vice president for exploration, Kevin McLachlan said, in waters off Mauritania, Senegal, Namibia, South Africa, Guyana and Brazil.

While the company declined to say how many wells it drilled in 2018, McLachlan said 2019 would be Total’s largest program in years. The 23 wells planned represent about a trebling of the levels of 2017 and 2016, and is higher even than the 20 drilled in 2013, before the oil price crash.

The company’s new game plan is to concentrate efforts on emerging and mature basins, which offer a greater chance of exploration success. It is moving away from its higher-risk, higher-reward strategy of targeting “frontier” areas that have not been commercially exploited, an approach which yielded scant rewards and saw outlier Total fall behind rivals.

As a result the proportion of its exploration capital the African-focused company is spending on frontier areas has dropped to 15 percent, from 40 percent five years ago.

“We were spending a lot of money in frontier,” said McLachlan, a Canadian geophysicist who joined Total in 2015 to lead the five-year revamp of its exploration strategy. “Now we want balance.”

Most of the wells it aims to drill this year will target known giant fields, he added.

Total has broken ranks with some rivals in recent years and largely ignored the rush to U.S. shale. It is looking to eke out conventional resources, particularly in Africa where it has the biggest industry presence. The strategy carries risks though, and has left the company exposed to the kind of political instability that has deterred others.

McLachlan said Total’s exploration budget would remain broadly in line with 2018, when it was $1.2 billion, and 2017, when it was $1.1 billion. That is still less than half the level of 2014, when the price crash forced all majors to cut spending.

LAGGING IN DISCOVERIES

Appraisals of discoveries in 2018 could offer signs that Total’s shift in exploration strategy is paying off.

The company announced a 1 trillion cubic feet gas discovery off Shetland in the North Sea last year. Appraisals are ongoing for the Ballymore discovery in the Gulf of Mexico with Chevron, and Calypso in Cyprus with Eni.

A major discovery in 2019 could cement the turnaround after a drought between 2009 and 2014 when it spent billions in exploration with little barrels to show for it, while rivals Eni Exxon Mobil and BP, racked up successes.

Yet there is still work to do in terms of converting exploration dollars into commercial success.

Energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie said Total had aggressively snapped up exploration blocks in 2017 and 2018, which took it to the top of the industry table with over 189,000 square km added since 2015 – around 70,000 higher than its nearest competitor.

But in terms of discoveries since 2015, Total still lags some peers, said Wood Mackenzie analyst Andrew Latham.

“It is clearly behind Exxon Mobil. Exxon’s success in Guyana marks them out as industry leader,” said Latham, adding that Eni’s Zohr gas discovery in Egypt was the next top find.

“Thereafter, it is competing well with the other majors, it has been involved in a string of multi-hundred million barrel big new finds, whereas in the previous four years it would have been one of the weaker or weakest of the majors.”

As part of its turnaround plan, Total has created five regional exploration hubs with a concentration of geoscientists, instead of teams spread out in 38 countries.

Caterpillar shares drop on missed profit

A new, central 10-person leadership team reviews and chooses projects, compared with decisions being made locally before, while people with exploration track records have been placed in executive positions for the first time.

S.AFRICA RESULTS EXPECTED ‘IN DAYS’

Like some competitors, including Exxon and BP, Total is looking to deepwater exploration at a time when technological advances – particularly in 3D digital seismic imaging – is aiding a comeback in that area following a decade when industry advances have been focused on onshore shale.

Of the 23 wells in Total’s drill program this year, it has already started work at the deepwater Brulpadda field off South Africa. Two industry sources close to the project say the potential for a discovery is high and could signal a game-changer not only for Total, but also for the country.

“We are expecting the results in the coming days,” Total’s Chairman and Chief Executive Patrick Pouyanne said.

While Total has said the field could hold between 500 million to over 1 billion barrels of oil equivalent, one of its partner in the project is more upbeat.

“The outlook for finding hydrocarbons is extremely high. The question is whether it is gas or oil, and whether it is a good-quality reservoir,” Keith Hill, CEO of Africa Oil Corp, a minority stakeholder in the field, told Reuters, adding that the field could hold 1.5 to 3 billion barrels.

Other oil companies and South African authorities are likely to be watching closing.

“Any potential discovery will ultimately result in the attraction of other oil companies and the growing of the oil and exploration and production industry in South Africa,” said Viljoen Storm, acting chief executive of the country’s state-owned Petroleum Agency. -Reuters

-Bate Felix and Wendell Roelf

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Here’s How The US Claims The Assange-Manning Conspiracy Worked

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The U.S. government has disclosed more of its case against WikiLeaks cofounder Julian Assange. It hinges on a claim he and Chelsea Manning worked together to crack a password for a computer storing sensitive government files.

An affidavit unsealed Monday outlining the case against Assange said he conspired with Manning when they discussed working together to crack a password “related to two computers with access to classified national security information.” More specifically, the password belonged to a user called FTP (not to be confused with an FTP server) on two Windows computers that Manning could access from a base in Iraq, the government said.

The FTP account wasn’t associated with any specific individual, and the government alleged that if Manning had used it to pilfer files and hand them over to Wikileaks, she could have foiled investigators looking into who was behind the leaks.

“Although there is no evidence that the password to the FTP user was obtained, had Manning done so, she would have been able to take steps to procure classified information under a username that did not belong to her,” the affidavit read. “Such measures would have frustrated attempts to identify the source of the disclosures to WikiLeaks.”

The alleged conspiracy to crack the password took place in March 2010, two months after she’d walked out of the Iraq base with classified war reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. She was later convicted and served seven years in jail for downloading tens of thousands U.S. military documents and diplomatic cables.

How passwords are cracked

The reason any password had to be cracked in the first place was the use of what’s known as a “hash.” Microsoft’s Windows operating system doesn’t store passwords in plain text. That’s to prevent hackers who find a way on to the computer from seeing and stealing them. Instead, Microsoft makes life harder for cybercriminals and snoops by turning that plain text into scrambled code. That string of letters and numbers is known as a “hash value” and it’s created when an algorithm is applied to the plain text of the password.

For an attacker to get at the plain text it’s possible to do a so-called “brute force attack.” The process for this is basic: The hacker creates a huge list of guessed passwords through the same hashing algorithm used by Windows to find a matched hash value for the hidden password. Once the same hash value is calculated, the password has been found.

Sometimes a password will be too complex for guessing to work in a short enough time frame. That’s where “rainbow tables” come in. These contain a massive number of hash values for previously calculated passwords. Hackers use them to do a quick comparison of the hash they have with the ones in the table, in the hopes that it’s already been seen before and a match is available.

“In computing terms we call this a time/memory trade-off. Rather than spend time on a task, we pre-calculate parts of it and store them somewhere, essentially trading time for memory,” says Tom Wyatt, senior penetration tester at cybersecurity provider Bulletproof. “These tables can be calculated or downloaded from various online sources, and it simply boils down to paying for storage for it all; even in 2010 this was fairly cheap and entirely possible.”

But Microsoft goes one step further in protecting those hash values by splitting them in two, storing the parts in separate files. Here’s where a little trick comes in handy: A hacker might be able to recover those two separate pieces by rebooting a Windows PC using a CD with the Linux operating system. Back in 2010, it was possible to do that and recover the full hash value.

Ken Munro, a penetration tester with Pen Test Partners, told Forbes the technique still works, as long as there’s no additional layer of security over it, such as full disc encryption. “Whilst the technique still works, it’s quite rare to find systems that don’t now have full disc or similar encryption,” he added. (Microsoft hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication). According to the government’s telling of the story, evidence suggests Manning tried, and very possibly failed, with this technique. In a footnote in the affidavit, the government said Manning hadn’t provided Assange with the full hash, only one of the two halves required.

It’s alleged Manning passed what she thought was a hash value to Assange. The Wikileaks chief then said he would pass it on to a specialist in cracking, according to chats over the Jabber encrypted communications app, as provided in the affidavit. But, as per the investigators’ claims, there was some confusion: Manning said she wasn’t even sure what she handed to Assange was the hash value they wanted. Assange messaged Manning to ask if there were “any more hints” about the hash and that he’d had “no luck so far,” according to the government account. From there it’s unclear what happened. The government admits it didn’t know whether the password was ever cracked.

Not that it changes much for Assange: The charge is that of conspiracy. If he did offer assistance to help Manning gain access to U.S. government systems and encouraged the then intelligence analyst to leak files, the charge still stands. Manning, who served seven years in jail before being pardoned by President Barack Obama, is back behind bars for refusing to testify in the investigation into Wikileaks. Her lawyer had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, couldn’t be reached for comment at the time of publication. She told Sky News yesterday that the indictment against her client showed “the kinds of communications journalists have with sources all the time.” Following Assange’s arrest, however, various journalists have said on Twitter that any incitement to hack organizations or steal documents was far from normal and risked breaking the law.

Meanwhile, the fallout from Assange’s arrest continues. According to Reuters, Ecuador’s telecommunications vice minister Patricio Real said the government’s networks had been hit by a mass of cyberattacks after it decided to revoke Assange’s asylum status. He claimed various government websites had been slammed by 40 million hacking attempts per day, double the number it typically sees.

-Thomas Brewster; Forbes Staff

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Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg Faces Mounting Pressure From 737 MAX Crashes

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Dennis Muilenburg has earned a reputation as a high-energy CEO, bicycling 140 miles a week, sometimes taking groups of employees along for high-speed bonding sessions. The 55-year-old may need every ounce of energy he’s got as he faces one of the worst crises for Boeing in over 50 years: two crashes that killed 346 people, linked to the automated flight controls of the 737 MAX and leading to the grounding of the company’s bestselling plane.

The stakes for Boeing, and its CEO, are huge. The 737 accounts for 33% of Boeing’s revenue and almost 50% of its profit, according to Berenberg analyst Andrew Gollan. Deliveries have been halted since the plane was taken out of service worldwide after the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane, airlines are demanding compensation, and the company faces scrutiny from Congress, a Department of Transportation inquiry and a federal criminal probe. The stock (BA) has fallen 10%. Lawsuits filed by relatives of the dead and shareholders could take years to conclude.

Over the past few weeks, the 34-year Boeing veteran has been traveling heavily to shore up support from airline customers and investors. An aerospace engineer by training, Muilenburg has kept a close eye on the Boeing team rewriting the faulty flight control program; last week he went up in a plane that tested out its effectiveness.

But many observers are giving Boeing and Muilenburg poor marks for their public handling of the crisis. Until late last week, Muilenburg was largely invisible and the company’s public statements, while expressing sympathy for family and friends of the deceased, were short on substance.

“I give them a B,” says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor of leadership at the Yale School of Management. Muilenburg needs to put a human face on Boeing, he says, and get out in public and engage with the media to try to correct misperceptions and address the many questions about what went wrong, even if he doesn’t have ready answers to offer.  

Muilenburg hasn’t shown the media sophistication of his predecessor, Jim McNerney, who’d previously helmed GE’s prized aircraft engine division and 3M. “He’s got a catastrophe as his training ground,” says Sonnenfeld.

Preliminary reports from the investigations into the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 in October and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 last month suggest that the pilots of both planes struggled to counter a flight control program called MCAS that erroneously pushed the planes’ noses down due to malfunctioning angle-of-attack sensors. After Ethiopian investigators released their report last Thursday, Boeing put out a video statement by Muilenburg in which he said Boeing accepted responsibility for the role that MCAS played as one of the “chain links” in the two accidents.

Aviation regulators in other countries have questioned the Federal Aviation Administration’s certification of the MCAS system and its initial reluctance to pull the 737 MAX out of service; several have said they won’t just take the FAA’s word that it’s safe to fly again, making it uncertain when the plane will return to the skies worldwide.

With the prospects of a quick resolution fading, Boeing announced last Friday it would throttle back 737 production to 42 a month from 52—a sharp reversal from its plan to raise output to 57 by the summer.

Analyst Richard Epstein of Bank of America/Merrill Lynch downgraded the stock to neutral Monday, estimating that Boeing likely won’t be able to resume deliveries for six months and won’t get back on pace until 2021, reducing earnings through 2023 before interest and taxes by $13.7 billion.

Whether Muilenburg’s job is threatened or not may depend on the stock price, says Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with Teal Group.

The board is loyal to Muilenburg, observers say, and his record so far has given them little reason to doubt having signed off on then-CEO and chairman McNerney’s decision to promote him to the top job in 2015 at age 51.

Engineer With Focus On Financial Discipline
US-aviation-ACCIDENT-BOEING
Workers stand under the wing of a Boeing 737 MAX airplane at the Boeing Renton Factory in Renton, Washington on March 27, 2019. Boeing gathered hundreds of pilots and reporters at its factory to unveil a fix to the flight software of its grounded 737AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The hard-charging, detail-oriented engineer presented a strong contrast to McNerney, a liberal arts major at Yale and Harvard M.B.A. who rose up through the ranks at General Electric when it was a star factory under Jack Welch. Native to Iowa, Muilenburg grew up milking cows every morning on his family farm and graduated from Iowa State before going straight to work at Boeing. Health-conscious and rail thin, he drinks Diet Mountain Dew to get a calorie-free caffeine fix and has been known to order turkey sandwiches with no mayo.

Though he’s cut head count, Muilenburg has cultivated a more positive relationship with the workforce than McNerney, who clashed with the machinist’s union and infamously joked of workers “cowering” from him.

However, Muilenburg has followed in McNerney’s footsteps with a laser focus on financial discipline, including boosting profits by wringing discounts from suppliers. Muilenburg has even gone a step further, moving to make more components in house and aiming to more than triple sales from lucrative aftermarket maintenance and services to $50 billion a year.

Like his two predecessors, Muilenberg has continued to sweeten the pot for investors, devoting roughly 95% of operating cash flow to the company’s steadily rising dividend and share buybacks.

The stock has taken off, climbing fourfold from February 2016 to a peak of $446 at the beginning of March, compared with a 63% rise for the Dow industrials over the same period. The March selloff has only pushed the stock back to where it stood at the end of January.

But to Aboulafia, the flawed design of the MCAS flight control system, combined with the continuing problems with the KC-46 tanker and delays in the crewed space-launch program are further evidence for criticism he’s leveled at Boeing for almost two decades: that the company’s focus on shareholder rewards has come with a “deprioritization and perhaps under-resourcing of engineering.”

Boeing says it’s maintained R&D spending at a steady level and has a healthy corps of 56,000 engineers.

The question of how MCAS was certified has raised concerns over whether Boeing has gained too cozy a relationship with the FAA; a wildcard going forward is whether any evidence of wrongdoing will emerge.

If whistleblowers had any damaging information we likely would have heard it by now, says Mark Dombroff, an aviation attorney at LeClairRyan and former head of the Department of Justice’s aviation division. He expects that the DoJ will seek to determine within 90 to 120 days whether there’s a case to pursue.

Aviation experts are optimistic that Boeing’s software patch and training revisions will solve the 737 MAX’s safety problems. Boeing’s disclosure this week that it logged zero orders for the MAX in March generated negative headlines, but with a whopping 15,000 total narrow-body orders placed over the past seven years, there aren’t really any airlines left with sizable needs, says Aboulafia, with the notable exception of Chinese carriers. Any trade deal between the U.S. and China that would change the balance of trade will likely include Boeing sales.

Boeing’s last major crisis came in 2013, when the 787 was grounded for three months due to battery fires, two years after the plane entered service following years of production snafus and spiraling costs. While the financial stakes were large, no lives were lost. The last time Boeing faced a safety crisis of a comparable nature to the current one was the mid-1960s, when four new 727 jets crashed in a span of four months.

Like then, Boeing faces the task of convincing a fearful public that the MAX will be safe to step into again. Sonnenfeld says Muilenberg needs to take a page from James Burke, the late CEO of Johnson & Johnson, who pulled off the tall task of convincing Americans that Tylenol was still safe after seven people were killed by cyanide-laced capsules in 1982. “It’s going to take the CEO to be out there.”

-Jeremy Bogaisky; Forbes Staff

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Jeff Bezos To Give MacKenzie 25% Of His Amazon Stake, Worth Tens Of Billions, In Divorce

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Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive of Amazon, announced on Thursday that he will transfer roughly 4% of the company’s stock to his wife, MacKenzie, most likely by early July. The couple are in the process of finalizing their divorce.

Those shares are worth more than $35 billion as of 1:30 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday. That would make MacKenzie the third-richest woman in the world, behind L’Oréal’s Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, who is worth an estimated $52.9 billion, and Walmart’s Alice Walton, who is worth $45 billion. She would rank as the planet’s 26th-richest person, ahead of Nike’s Phil Knight.

Jeff Bezos will remain the world’s richest person, with a net worth above $110 billion, per early Thursday afternoon stock prices. Bill Gates is the world’s second-wealthiest individual, boasting an estimated $99.5 billion fortune.

While still pending, the Bezos divorce settlement will likely be the largest in world history. Other divorces of the ultrarich include Steve and Elaine Wynn (she received an estimated $850 million settlement), as well as Bill and Susan Gross (she received a $1.3 billion settlement).

In a statement posted to his Twitter account, Jeff Bezos said, “In all our work together, MacKenzie’s abilities have been on full display. She has been an extraordinary partner, ally, and mother.”

MacKenzie posted a tweet of her own, saying, “Grateful to have finished the process of dissolving my marriage with Jeff from each other. … Happy to be giving him all my interests in the Washington Post and Blue Origin, and 75% of our Amazon stock plus voting control of my shares to support his continued contributions with the teams of these incredible companies.”

The couple filed a petition for divorce on April 4, and they expect an official decree to be issued in early July, they said in an SEC filing that outlined the transfer of shares. The filing noted that Jeff Bezos will continue to exercise voting control over MacKenzie’s shares, unless she sells them on the open market or gives them to qualifying nonprofits.

If MacKenzie transfers shares, the recipient of the stock must sign a similar agreement granting Jeff Bezos voting control.

The couple announced their divorce in January, following 25 years of marriage. Their separation stirred a tabloid frenzy, as intimate text messages between Bezos and his romantic partner, Lauren Sanchez, a TV anchor, were leaked by the National Enquirer.

Bezos subsequently published an open letter accusing American Media Inc., which owns the National Inquirer, of extortion and blackmail. AMI has denied wrongdoing.

Bezos also hired a team of investigators to determine who accessed his private messages. His consultant Gavin De Becker ultimately accused the Saudi Arabian government of illicitly gaining access to Bezos’ cellphone. Saudi officials have denied that allegation.

-Angel Au-Yeung; Forbes Staff

-Noah Kirsch; Forbes Staff

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