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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