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Gary Norman

Gary Norman

Gary is Oilprice.com's South-East Asia & Pacific correspondent. He writes about energy matters, geopolitics and international financial markets. 

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Shale Pioneer Issues Warning To U.S. Drillers

U.S. shale has effectively upended the oil industry, with predictions that total U.S. oil production will surpass Saudi Arabia’s output this year, in turn rivalling Russia’s to become the preeminent global producer. From its position of being dependent on, and subordinate to OPEC, the U.S. has seemingly become the big bad wolf. Through a catalogue of tactical errors and misplaced belief in its own muscle, the mighty brick edifice of OPEC has begun to look more like a bundle of sticks.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that the U.S. will become a net energy exporter by the late 2020s, but how accurate is that forecast, and to what extent is it mere hyperbole? In October last year there were already caveats about the nature of U.S. shale, with some warning that aggressive expansion was leading to rapid initial growth that would ultimately peak too soon. Mark Papa, former head of EOG Resources (NYSE: EOG) raised the question of flatlining output in the face of the doubling of the oil rig count, “(h)ow can a rig count be double and yet production be stagnant?"

Figures have also been influenced by the rapid pace of technological development, a pace which has itself plateaued. Robert Clarke, WoodMac research director for Lower 48 upstream, said that “(i)f future wells ... are not offset by continued technology evolution, the Permian may peak in 2021”. IEA forecasts then, may be based on rapid growth and technological development that simply isn’t sustainable. Related: Shell Outsmarts Competition In The Gulf Of Mexico

Is U.S. shale just a sheep in wolf’s clothing, its bite ultimately as benign as grandma's? The IEA is still forecasting that the U.S. will be the number one oil exporter by 2023 at 12.1 million bpd, but at the CERAWeek Conference in Houston on Tuesday, Papa is set to turn that thinking on its head when he warns the industry that shale will hit roadblocks that prevent such forecasts from being realized. He says the best drilling locations in North Dakota and South Texas are already tapped out. “The oil market is in a state of misdirection now,” Papa told the WSJ. “Someone needs to speak out.”

How much of this is indeed misdirection on his part? Papa is CEO at Centennial Resource Development (NASDAQ: CDEV), which holds the rights to 77,000 acres in the oil-rich Delaware sub-basin of the Permian. A slowdown in expansion and its potential consequence of increased oil prices is advantageous to Centennial’s shareholders, so who are we to believe guilty of misdirection?

A more conservative rate of growth may simply be desired by some, but it also may be an inevitability. Kevin Holt, chief investment officer of Invesco's U.S. value equities has said that the situation many companies find themselves in is in part a consequence of the link between their leaders’ pay and production growth, rather than returns on investment. This has fostered a drilling frenzy that has resulted in an explosion of production - an unregulated drilling frenzy that may be at odds with the long term survival of those companies. Investors have subsequently demanded a more conservative approach to drilling, which appears to be having a stabilizing effect. Related: Nigeria Can Produce Oil At $20 A Barrel

Ultimately the market is subject to myriad pressures, such as the heterogeneous quality of oil, fluctuations in labor costs and oil prices, as well as changes in the pace of technological development. These pressures shape the nature of the market, and also make it difficult to predict the longevity of tight oil reserves, and the ability of companies to exploit them. Another significant factor is regulation. How long will Trump’s EPA remain the castrated shadow of its former self, and how long until it begins to bare its own teeth?

Is Papa’s anticipated warning about to shake up the industry? Or is it merely the continuation of the chorus of restraint that many in the industry have been voicing in this period of massive growth and upheaval? Ultimately the industry will decide whether it will be eating out of Papa’s hand, or persist in biting the hand that feeds it.


By Gary Norman for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Lee James on March 06 2018 said:
    After the Permian, what next?

    Oh, something will fall into place after the Permian formation. It's always been that way --
    either improved extraction technology, or oil found in previously unknown formations. But it is a little curious that we're down to "source rock," down below the ground about as far as my nearby volcanic mountain is high.

    It's all a little curious. I think it prudent to transition to other forms of energy. Most of the new energy is collected at ground level, or above. You can reach out and touch the energy collectors and they will be there, in one location, for quite a long time.
  • Josh jones on March 06 2018 said:
    “Tapped out” at current recovery rates leaves a hell of a lot of oil in the ground, and the potential for drastic improvements in re-frac and enhanced recovery technologies. As depletion of conventional reservoirs intensifies and the price of crude climbs the likelihood that the Williston, Permian, and other tight formations will fade into irrelevance is very low.
  • paul on March 07 2018 said:
    We used to read and believe, now we read and laugh.
  • Kshithij Sharma on March 08 2018 said:
    Shale oil is only temporary and is not as abundant as conventional oil. The USA shale oil will peak by 2022-23 going by the estimate of the amount of shale oil. The current hike in production is merely to upset the OPEC, especially Arabs who had started to misbehave.

    However, if the shale oil in Russia is tapped, things may look up again for global economy. Russia has a large shale oil and gas basin. The shale oil in Russia is said to be over 70 billion barrels to 200 billion barrels, 30-35% of which is extractable. If Russia agrees to hike oil production to over 15 million barrels from the current 11 million barrels a day, then the USA shale oil decline can be bridged.

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