[Editor's note: A version of this story appears in the August 2019 edition of Oil and Gas Investor. Subscribe to the magazine here.]

Zach Lee co-founded ARM Energy Holdings LLC, originally known as Asset Risk Management, in Houston in 2004. Still in his mid-20s, he built it on a foundation informed by his experience in commodities trading and related jobs at Duke Energy Trading & Marketing LLC and Entergy-Koch Trading LP. He worked in structured products and natural gas derivatives after earning a degree in business administration, specializing in finance, at Texas A&M University.

Zach Lee
“We want to own midstream assets and then we want to be able to put our own capital at risk. If we can go find the market, and see a bottleneck, then we marry those two.”

Fifteen years on, ARM has expanded well beyond hedging advisory. Today it also provides physical oil and gas marketing (it employs about 80 marketers and traders), and builds and operates midstream systems in several basins. More recently, it added a fourth business line by putting its balance sheet to work through an internal team called the optimization group, which takes capacity on a pipeline or leases storage space, then aggregates production from several of its smaller E&P customers that otherwise might not have the ability to secure such capacity on their own.

“We step into the market for them and take risk on their behalf,” Lee said.

The midstream unit contributes roughly 60% of total gross revenue; 30% is the physical marketing and trading and optimization group, and 10% is hedging. Between these four strategies, ARM serves more than 250 customers through offices in Calgary, Denver, Midland, Oklahoma City and Pittsburgh, with field offices in the Delaware Basin.

ARM began developing midstream assets in 2014. Most notably, it formed the Kingfisher Midstream LLC system serving the Stack play in 2015, which it sold in 2018 to Silver Run Acquisition Co. II for $1.35 billion. At the time, Kingfisher had processing capacity of 350 million cubic feet a day (MMcf/d) and 400 miles of gas and oil pipelines in the play.

Lee turned his sights to other basins. In 2017, ARM formed Salt Creek Midstream LLC in the Delaware Basin, with funds managed by Ares Management LP. Salt Creek offers natural gas and crude gathering, compression, cryogenic processing and water gathering services across nearly 1 million acres in Texas and New Mexico. Additionally, Salt Creek completed an NGL header system to serve Apache Corp.’s Alpine High development and Salt Creek’s gas customers.

Currently, construction of a crude oil gathering, terminaling and transportation system joint venture with Noble Midstream Partners is underway, to give Permian producers access to Texas Gulf Coast markets.

In one deal example unveiled this summer, Delaware Basin pure-play Lilis Energy signed a firm takeaway and sales agreement with Salt Creek for 6,000 barrels a day (bbl/d) of capacity through June 2020, and 5,000 bbl/d from July 2020 through June 30, 2024. Lilis contributed its acreage in Winkler, Loving and Lea counties; Salt Creek will provide capital to develop water gathering and disposal.

Oil and Gas Investsor caught up with Lee recently to see what drives ARM’s expansion, and what’s next.

Investor: Why did ARM migrate from hedging advisory to operating midstream assets? There’s such a difference between trading on a computer screen and building infrastructure out in the field.

Lee: We started the company in April 2004 to work with small to midsize companies to help them design and manage their hedge portfolios, but when unconventional shale hit, we saw this market get turned upside down. We saw areas such as the Northeast that had always been short gas become long gas. We saw this explosion of infrastructure. These shale basins changed from an F&D [finding and development] standpoint too, and so our customers came back to us and said, “We need help with this.” We had a strong understanding of supply and demand on a basin-by-basin level.

We got into the physical marketing business first (in 2013), just trying to navigate this new normal. Then we had to figure out how to move that oil and gas around, and that led to what we’re really good at as a firm, which is figuring out where the bottlenecks are and bringing a midstream solution that solved the bottleneck. So we went from being a third-party vendor to being accretive to the producer—and that led us to the midstream in 2014. A lot of midstream companies have been supply-push oriented, but we have been more demand-pull oriented. We said, “Let’s start with the market and work our way back.”

Investor: How do you define or handle risk?

Lee: Working in the upstream, you’re taking a bet on one company or one well at a time and on the commodity, whereas with Salt Creek Midstream we have 22 customers in nine different counties. It’s a bet on the Delaware Basin, but the main risk I have is that an operator on our system might decide to put more of his capital into the Midland Basin than into the Delaware. Midstream allows you to play with more elements.

One reason Kingfisher was so valuable is that we were exposed to multiple producers and approximately 300,000 gross acres were committed to the system, and Alta Mesa was only about a third of that. When we sold it, we had a quarter or two-quarters of transition period and then we were out.

If you believe the U.S. is going to continue to grow production, then the midstream companies will allow that to happen and they will benefit, but they are not directly tied to the upstream economics. On the flip side, midstream returns have historically been lower than upstream returns, but they are a safer vehicle. The oil and gas business is beginning to look more and more like a mining business and we felt like we sort of were just the middlemen, and that was not accretive.

Investor: What is this thing you call the optimization group?

Lee: Starting in 2017, we formed a team, the optimization group, but we kept it kind of quiet. What we’ll do is take out spare pipeline capacity, or we’ll lease storage; we put it on our balance sheet and then we try to marry that up with the producers we have.

We want to own midstream assets and then we want to be able to put our own capital at risk. If we can go find the market, and see a bottleneck, then we marry those two. We will not look to do a midstream asset unless we also see a downstream angle—it’s too competitive. Obviously, we have to find a basin with a supply push, but we have to see there’s a bottleneck and bring demand pull to that.

Investor: Can you give us an example?

Lee: We own all these assets, and so it’s the optimization group’s job to extract value out of those. For example, we move gas out of Waha, Texas, to California; the optimization group does that. We’re buying gas from producers on our system and sending it out there, and sometimes they’re paying us because we can move it to California—it’s very odd.

We’ve got all these producers committed to Salt Creek, so what happens if gas goes negative? They’re going to stop drilling and that’s bad for us, so let’s try to figure out how to move gas.

Investor: How do you do that?

Lee: We move gas for them and for our own account. If we can increase their netback, that exposes us to have to take out more capacity, but our guys were staying in front of it before the market turned upside down. It is weird times.

Investor: But ARM’s hedging business helps every other part of your business.

Lee: Absolutely. There are times when our guys will even step in and make a market if it’s too illiquid, especially on the basis side. We understand the market because we are in it every day, we’re not just reading about it.

The business has evolved, where we are beginning to own midstream assets and control the hydrocarbons. We have moved from being a service vendor to being more accretive to the producers, to be able to provide capital and take on risk.

For example, we’ll take out capacity of 100,000 bbl/d at a certain rate, but we’re not the anchor on a long-haul pipe say, coming from the Bakken. Now 100,000 bbl/d might be a one dollar rate, but a 5,000-bbl/d producer can’t do that—his rate might be $2 a barrel. So we’ll aggregate all the producers that are our customers and say, Let’s ride on this lower rate together.

It’s a merchant type transaction, but we’d do it only where we see there’s a need.

Investor: What really led you to expand like this?

Lee: I think it’s the natural progression. As producers get to a certain size and keep growing, they’re asking us for more, and they’re asking us to put our balance sheet to work. We are trying to be accretive and step into risk on their behalf. I feel we have to bring something to them and not just be a third-party vendor. If we own capacity to Corpus Christi, then that’s something we can provide that maybe not everybody else can provide.

Investor: Exports have changed everything. How are you playing that aspect?

Lee: Exports dovetail with our assets. We’ve worked really hard to understand unconventional shale, and two years ago we saw that U.S. exports would happen. We [ARM] now export gas to Mexico; we export oil to the global market. We lease dock capacity in Corpus and Houston; we have pipe capacity. And we have a JV with a global trading company into the export markets.

We [the JV with the trading company] are the largest anchor shipper on one of the long-haul pipelines out of the Permian, at 150,000 bbl/d. We took out the capacity initially but then we didn’t want to stop at the dock. After talking to some international buyers though, we found that the folks that do things on the water in a global market are really good at it, and they’ve been doing it for a long time, so we thought it’d be better to partner with one of them. I think we have a view of the market, but we know what we are beginners at, so I think we found a fantastic export partner. But I can’t tell you who.

Investor: How do these partnerships or JVs come about?

Lee: As a company, we have always been very opportunistic and entrepreneurial, and we want all our employees to think like owners, which works well because they all have different relationships. What happens typically is, we’re looking at doing something ourselves. I think if you are not greedy, and you are honest with yourself on what you do really well, then you look at what someone else can bring to the table. That’s how a lot of these JVs start. You form a partnership with someone who does the other things well.

Take a look at our JV with Noble Energy [Inc.] in the Delaware. They had a large amount of acreage in their upstream, and we had a large amount of acreage near them. Both of us wanted to build a pipeline north to Wink, Texas, and the Noble team reached out to us, actually.

For us, it’s about knowing what they bring to the table versus what we bring, and what are we able to give up with the economics. Noble’s got a great name. We’ve worked with their midstream team, and we generally like them—we found them to be smart and aggressive, and it would be silly for both of us to build the same line.

Now with Apache, we were going to build an NGL line close to Waha, as were they. So I approached the head of marketing and midstream at Apache. They had Alpine High; we had a bunch of dedicated acreage behind us. Let’s combine.

“We have moved from being a service vendor to being more accretive to the producers, to be able to provide capital and take on risk.”
—Zach Lee, co-founder of ARM Energy Holdings

Investor: What is the secret to making sure these JVs work well?

Lee: You’ve got to get very comfortable with your partner. With Apache, there’s no amount of capital savings I could have provided them to where they could offlay the risk that this pipeline at Alpine High has to work, there are certain things we were willing to give up for them to have control over. Again, they’re another great partner with a great name.

Anytime you do a joint venture, you have someone in your business, and they have a say. Do all the pros outweigh the cons? Noble and Apache are great partners, so it was an easy decision for us.

As for the global trading company—our traders have known their traders for a while; there’s just a lot of relationships. They look just like us, they think like us. They were aggressive, they were creative, they were very easy to work with. We started operating as partners before the agreement ever got done, and I think that says a ton about that firm.

Our fourth JV is with EPIC Midstream NGL; we are a minority owner in that asset (in all the other JVs we are a 50% owner). With EPIC NGL, we are the largest midstream system in the Delaware. We wanted to have a seat at the table regarding the export market on the Waha NGL line and be able to grab value. So all in, Salt Creek is a Delaware Basin midstream company backed by Ares, and it has JVs with Apache, Noble and EPIC.

Investor: It’s certainly good to be in the Delaware if you are anywhere.

Lee:Right. The vision of Salt Creek is to be a vertically integrated company from wellhead to water. When we surveyed the landscape, the companies we were competing within the Delaware were intra-basin players but by having downstream, we can pull on different economics or different buckets.

Salt Creek has gas gathering and processing, oil and water gathering and disposal, and NGL transportation. We have leased an oil dock at Corpus. We have a large engineering office out in Pecos and a field office in Jal, N.M. At one point during construction we had 1,200 people working on Salt Creek, including contractors. We have pipe in the ground in nine counties. We’ve got nearly $2 billion in capital into it today—that’s equity and debt.

Investor: Are there further expansion plans?

Lee: I think we’ll always be expanding. We went very broad; I think we have subsets within each business, and we’ll continue to harvest what we have today. Our system is so large, I don’t think you’ll see us do any acquisitions. We laid very large pipe. We do have a couple more JVs up our sleeve, but I can’t say more or our BD guys would kill me.

Investor: You’d rather build greenfield assets than buy them?

Lee: Not necessarily. Historically we’ve done greenfield over brownfield, and it has better economics typically. You know, it’s hard to look at other transactions compared to Salt Creek—the Delaware is the lowest-cost basin in the country, and to have this amount of acreage dedicated and be 600 miles from where demand growth is—this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We didn’t get into the crude gathering business until mid-2018, and we didn’t get into the water gathering business until Q4 of ’18. You still have a lot of greenfield opportunities in the Delaware because of this massive supply push that dovetails directly into a demand pull—that doesn’t happen that often.

Investor: What about ideas in other basins?

Lee: I think midstream opportunities going forward will be more brownfield … just because I don’t think there are any more greenfield opportunities—there is no big new supply basin out there, but then E&Ps always figure something out.

There’s certainly opportunity to build out infrastructure in the Powder River Basin, which is catching some attention now, however there’s lot of infrastructure there already … I think what you’ll see is someone can go buy a system and then build on top of it. That’s brownfield in nature.

Anything that’s been developed in the last five years has plenty of infrastructure. Just to be able to go out there and buy raw land like in the Delaware—there’s no more opportunities like that.

Investor: So what opportunity set is next?

Lee: In this environment, from an upstream standpoint, we are hyper-focused on being in areas of low cost with great rock. That’s one. Two is the downstream; if you can combine those it covers up a lot of potential risk or pitfalls. So for us in the Delaware we wanted to be exposed to New Mexico, we wanted to be exposed to the south, to be exposed to the western gas condy, and be exposed to the eastern spots that are oily. That was done on purpose.

It was a big undertaking, so we had to find the right sponsor. Ares has a large balance sheet and they think long term.

Salt Creek
Salt Creek is supported by an average E&P customer acreage dedication of roughly 15 years.

Investor: What is the long-term vision for Salt Creek?

Lee: Before the market turned upside down, we both had the same vision, which is to build a self-sustainable business with scale and size, to build cash flow and try to harvest as much inventory [acreage] as possible within the Delaware. It was not going to be a quick flip. I didn’t like thinking that the only way we could monetize this asset would be based on what someone else thinks it’s worth. That was a risk we didn’t like taking.

What you can’t control is when that oil or gas is going to be produced. I can’t tell a producer when to produce. What I can control is how I diversify across operators and across the basin and focus on pure-play oil and gas companies. We were hyper-focused initially on guys that were going to be running rigs today. We built large-scale pipe so we can scale up and start going after the larger E&P companies, but we focused on private-equity-backed companies first.

We set up an independent board for Salt Creek and for maybe being public someday, but I don’t think we want to be public. You’re talking about a potentially large enterprise here, and we like the fact that our traders can come in and harvest all this optionality around it.

Investor: You talk about harvesting optionality a lot. So without it, you wouldn’t do something?

Lee: A core belief at ARM is that every asset has embedded optionality where we can figure out how to extract that value. I’ll give you an example: every time you build an asset—tanks, for example—you build larger tanks than you’d need. Sometimes you just need that for overflow. But if it’s just sitting there, I can use storage to play the contango market or use it for blending.

If I have additional pipe and our producers are flowing through it, what about the additional pipe that’s not being used? Can I buy or truck barrels in? Do we have more dock capacity because we think that dock capacity is constrained? We over-buy optionality and overbuild our options. Everything has to be built on economics though, and go through the board. But there’s a lot of hidden value there.

Investor: What about growing the water business?

Lee: That’s not something you’ll see us grow drastically because there’s no downstream value; there’s less optionality to it. We like the water business, and we’ll continue to grow it as our customers demand it, but we don’t see a bottleneck downstream. We only do the produced water gathering and disposal today.

Yes, you can add scale and get more producers and add more water, and I think that’s where you’ll see the water business go. For example, three producers pay a dollar each to handle water, whereas I can handle it for all three for $1.50. I get the scale and size instead of each of them trying to do it. We’re trying to figure out the best way to grow it and provide good service. We don’t want to sell it, that’s for sure. The DNA for us is working on producers’ behalf.

Investor: How do you see the relationship between producers and the midstream unfolding?

Lee: At the end of the day, producers and end users will come together and the middleman, the midstream, will be cut out. Producers will say, why do I need you? They will say I need you, if you’ll take on some of the risk and provide some capital, and that’s what we’ve tried to do.

Investor: Where can you grow then?

Lee: I think we’d look into Oklahoma someday, because we know that area very well … but right now we have plenty to say grace over in the Delaware. You’re going to see a lot of product hitting the coast, and it’s not going to be efficient, so there may be opportunities there. We’re hiring across the board. Our midstream grew a lot last year, and trading is growing this year from a personnel standpoint. We have a different group president for each business, and Salt Creek has its own CEO. But we’re all going in the same direction. If one wins, the other ones win. They feed on each other, so it’s been exciting.

Leslie Haines can be reached at lhaines@hartenergy.com.