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Arthur Berman

Arthur Berman

Arthur E. Berman is a petroleum geologist with 36 years of oil and gas industry experience. He is an expert on U.S. shale plays and…

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The Biggest Red Herring In U.S. Shale

The Biggest Red Herring In U.S. Shale

Rig productivity and drilling efficiency are red herrings.

A red herring is something that takes attention away from a more important subject. Rig productivity and drilling efficiency distract from the truth that tight oil producers are losing money at low oil prices.

Pad drilling allows many wells to be drilled from the same location by a single rig. Rig productivity reflects the increased volume of oil and gas thus produced by each of a decreasing number of rigs. It does not account for the number of producing wells that continues to increase in all tight oil plays.

In other words, although the barrels produced per rig is increasing, the barrels per average producing well is decreasing (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Bakken oil production per rig vs. production per well.

Source: EIA, Drilling Info and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

Rig productivity is a potentially deceptive measurement because it does not consider cost and apparently it always increases. It gives a best of all possible worlds outcome that seems to defy the laws of physics. Drilling productivity gives the false impression that as the rig count approaches zero, production approaches infinity.

Barrels per rig is interesting but the cost to produce a barrel of oil is what matters.

Similarly, drilling efficiency measures the decrease in the number of days to drill a certain number of feet. This is also interesting but, unless we know how it affects the cost to produce a barrel of oil, it is not useful.

The data contained in 10-Q and 10-K SEC forms provides a continuing view of a company’s financial position during the year. This allows us to determine a company’s cost per barrel and its components that rig productivity and drilling efficiency do not provide.

Pioneer, EOG and Continental SEC Filings for The First Half of 2015

First-half 2015 SEC filings for Pioneer, EOG* and Continental show that these companies are all losing money at an average realized crude oil price of $48 and range of $44-52 per barrel that includes hedges. I chose these companies to study because they have good positions in the best tight oil plays, and provide a weighted cross-section of Bakken, Eagle Ford and Permian production performance (Table 1). Related: Can We Trust The Statistics The EU Gives Us On Renewable Energy Targets?


Table 1. Play representation of Pioneer Natural Resources Company, EOG Resources, Inc. and Continental Resources, Inc.

Source: Company SEC filings and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

First, I looked at operating costs summarized in Table 2.


Table 2. Second quarter (Q2) and first half (H1) 2015 operating costs for Pioneer, EOG and Continental compared with the same periods in 2014.

Source: Company SEC filings and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

Operating costs for Pioneer, EOG and Continental decreased by about 15%, 12% and 16%, respectively, in 2015 compared with 2014. This had nothing to do with rig productivity or drilling efficiency since those are capital costs; we are talking here about operating costs.

Decreases were because of reduced staffing costs, lower taxes because of lower oil prices and revenues, and generally lower costs of doing midstream business as service providers lowered their prices to remain competitive in a lower oil-price environment.

Next, I investigated how production rates changed in response to lower oil prices. Continental’s production increased 12% in 2015. Both Pioneer’s and EOG’s 2015 daily production rates, however, were flat compared with 2014 as these companies apparently exercised discipline in the face of lower prices (Table 3).


Table 3. 2015 vs. 2014 daily production rate comparison for Pioneer, EOG and Continental.

Source: Company SEC filings and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

This is important because it means that capital expenditures by Pioneer and EOG in the first half of 2015 were to maintain rather than grow production.

Table 4 and Figure 2 summarize operating and maintenance capital costs for H1 2015 for these three companies along with their realized prices per barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) and calculated net margins per BOE. BOE prices represent a blend of crude oil ($44-52 per barrel), natural gas liquids ($15-16 per barrel) and natural gas ($2.45-2.53 per Mcf) prices.


Table 4. First half (H1) 2015 cost per barrel of oil equivalent summary for Pioneer, EOG and Continental.

Source: Company SEC filings and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge) Related: Not Everyone Is Happy About Egypt’s Latest Gas Discovery


Figure 2. First half (H1) 2015 cost per barrel of oil equivalent summary for Pioneer, EOG and Continental.

Source: Company SEC filings and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

Even though Continental’s capital expenditures were for both maintenance and growth, I used 80% of its capex for a potential comparison with Pioneer’s and EOG’s full maintenance capital costs.

All three companies lost money on a unit basis for H1 2015. EOG lost the least at $9.74 per Boe (28% of its realized price). Pioneer lost $23.48 (75% if its realized price per Boe) and, Continental, $24.04 (69% of its realized price per Boe).

Any analyst or journalist who says that tight oil companies are doing fine at lower oil prices because of rig productivity, drilling efficiency or any other factor needs to look at the data. For less substantial and less well-positioned companies than the three in this study, the losses are probably far worse.

These observations are consistent with the trends in cash flow shown in Table 5.


Table 5. Cash flow summary for 2014 and 2015 for Pioneer, EOG and Continental.

Source: Company SEC filings and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

All three companies had negative free cash flow in H1 2015. Pioneer out-spent cash flow by $781 million; EOG out-spent cash flow by $966 million; and, Continental out-spent cash flow by $1.1 billion.

Table 5 also reveals that EOG was cash-flow positive in 2014 before oil prices collapsed although Pioneer and Continental lost money even at higher oil prices. I wanted to compare EOG’s costs when the company was cash-flow positive to more recent costs when it was cash-flow negative (Table 6).



Table 6. EOG Resources’ 2015 vs. 2014 costs per barrel of oil equivalent.

Source: Company SEC filings and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

I have already discussed the probable causes for lower operating costs but the 20% decrease in capital costs is significant and may be behind some of the claims that rig productivity and efficiency are important. I do not know what percentage of capex for 2014 was for growth vs. maintenance. My allocation of 85% of capex is, therefore, arbitrary but probably over-states the amount of capex savings between 2015 and 2014. It provides a net margin per BOE that is consistent with the positive cash flow for 2014 shown in Table 5, and with recent statements by the company that it would resume full drilling at around $60 per barrel oil prices.

One of my clients just drilled a well to more than 14,000 feet onshore Texas using a high-horse power top-drive rig designed for horizontal drilling. The day rate for the drilling rig decreased by almost 40% from the initial quote in the fall of 2014 to when the contract was signed in the spring of 2015.

This leads me to believe that most, if not all, of the recent capex savings by EOG and other tight oil producers is because of price deflation and not because of increases in rig productivity or efficiency.

The EIA Drilling Productivity Report

If we have learned anything watching the rig count fall since December 2014 without much corresponding fall in oil production, it is that rig count is a very poor predictor of anything except where capital is going. Drilling productivity is just another variant or derivative of rig count and comes burdened, therefore, with all of its vagaries. Related: This Oil Major Hasn’t Lost Faith In Subsea Drilling

At the same time, there are problems with how the EIA uses rig productivity in their monthly Drilling Productivity Report (DPR). EIA assumes a 2-month lag between well spud and first production for all unconventional plays but this is incorrect for the three most important tight oil plays.

Figure 3 shows that the average time from spud to first production for the Eagle Ford is at least 75 days; for the Bakken, 120 days; and, for the Permian “shale” plays, 90 days.


Figure 3. Data analysis for well spud to first production for the Bakken, Eagle Ford and Permian basin tight oil plays.

Source: Drilling Info and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

(Click image to enlarge)

There are additional problems with EIA’s DPR such as inclusion of considerable conventional oil production in the Permian basin, and with the broad definitions of play regions that include many wells and plays not relevant to the tight oil and shale gas plays of interest (EIA acknowledges these issues in its methodology explanation).


The best way to understand the details and changes in the cost of producing oil and gas is by evaluating data in 10-Q and 10-K SEC filings. Costs have declined since oil prices collapsed and hard times hit the industry. Most of this decrease in cost is part of a larger deflationary trend in commodities and currencies and not because of rig productivity and drilling efficiency as many believe.

To some extent, lower costs compensate for the lower price of oil but none of the tight oil companies evaluated in this study are profitable in the $44-52 per barrel range of reported realized oil prices. They are all losing money.

Rig productivity and drilling efficiency measurements do not account for declining average well productivity. They will only become useful if they can be related to the marginal cost of producing a barrel of oil. For now, they are distractions from the more important subject of tight oil profitability.

*I own EOG stock.

By Art Berman for Oilprice.com

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  • Mick on September 07 2015 said:

    Thanks for being one of the few people who truly understands the profitability (or lack thereof) of shale oil companies. I am also a geologist and I have looked at some of the decline curves and can't understand where they are getting their reserves number from. Book value is way overestimated and the true equity value for most of these frackers is zero. You talked about 3 of the better companies in this cast but most of these smaller frackers are in far more desperate shape.

    What amazes me is that in the first half of 2015 bankers stepped in with another round of financing despite these obvious conclusions. Is there no one at the bank who can read a decline curve or a balance sheet? I predict that American production will fall to less than 8 million barrels a day by the end of 2016.
  • Scott on September 08 2015 said:
    Dave Thanks for an excellent article. I have been trying to explain to some of my friends who wouldn't know a rig from a frack spread why production per rig is a totally meaningless and dishonest metric. They are at the mercy of so-called oil analysts who appear on the networks and in publications who as well are just as clueless as their readers. If it takes 90 to 120 days to complete a well and the drilling , casing and cementing take 30 then of course there will be no decrease in wells coming on line for at least 60 days after the rig count starts dropping. There is however another factor that has stretched that production lag out and even resulted in a surge and that is the fact when drilling a pad well with say 10 wells the rig is moved around the lease until all the wells are drilled. When the rig is hauled away that frees -up 10 wells for fracking. For every rig that was retired there was probably 4 or five wells made available for fracking and indeed, my friends who are fracking have been busier than ever. In other words despite the fact that there are less rigs working there are more wells being brought into production. If I knew nothing about the oil patch I would believe that was a huge gain in efficiency...good news all around.
  • oildusk on September 08 2015 said:

    Interesting thoughts, but you completely missed the big picture.

    You are using average numbers to try and draw conclusions. The reality is that you have to look at the marginal numbers.

    The existing production, excluding any production brought on by new wells, is only charged with the monthly operating costs - and not the capital costs. The challenge with those numbers is that these wells were drilled at a time when the expectation was that these wells would be produced throughout the life of the well at $100 a barrel. Hence, the existing production is cash flow positive since the price obtained in the market exceeds the operating costs.

    For new well production, you could be right that the capital costs being paid will not rationalize drilling wells in a $40 price environment, but the fact that there are wells being drilled suggests that these wells are also probably cash flow positive. What is being lost or given up, is the associated "sunk costs" of any leasing expenses previously paid for these assets that are clearly in some sweet spot.

    It is a financial tragedy that the previous investments that these companies have made in drilling capital expenses and leasing/land capital expenses are not getting adequately compensated in the current oil price environment. If the stock of existing debt is high enough from these previous investments, some of these companies will not make it. But, even if a few companies go bankrupt, the shale reservoirs are still there and another U.S. oil company will end up holding that asset.

    The shale industry has tremendous flexibility to bring on additional wells when oil prices warrant it.
  • Oildusk on September 08 2015 said:
    One clarification to my comment. If new oil wells are getting drilled in this price environment (which is probably the purpose for most of the ongoing capital expenses for oil companies), these wells are probably not cash flow positive as I suggested (at least not in the current period), but you would hope that the wells will ultimately be economic - and will pay out over the life of the well - which would justify the current period capital investment.

    There are exceptions to this. Some wells are drilled to HBP exceptional leases. Other wells are drilled because production is hedged or partners are on the hook to carry well costs or fulfill drilling commitments.

    Even so, the fact that there is clearly some level of drilling going on is encouraging.


    The productivity of rigs is easy to determine - if it previously took you 20 days to drill a well and it now takes 10, I would argue that your productivity is twice what it used to be. This too is happening in a number of these plays.
  • Scott on September 08 2015 said:
    The only reason new wells get drilled in this oil price environment is because, A They're in a sweet spot and they have to drill to hold the lease, B They need that initial surge of production to help service their debt. True, if you reduce drilling time from 20 days to 10 days (an exagerration) that represents an efficiency gain. The issue however is oil production per rig which is a silly statistic. The fact that oil companies had a backlog of wells to frac and bring into production is the reason they are producing more oil while there are less rigs drilling. It is not due to an incremental increase in the, efficiency of the drilling process, which typically is one third to one fifth of the time required from spud-in to production. Drilling rigs do not produce oil. They drill and case wells. By the time the well comes into production The rig is long gone,and to quote oil production per drilling rig goes beyond misleading...it is factually dishonest and will lead to further mis-allocation of capital. Hmmm.....wonder why they would do that.
  • oildusk on September 08 2015 said:
    Scott, I'm assuming that the rigs are constantly being utilized to drill wells. When one rig finishes drilling it moves to the next location and drills another or, for some of the newer rigs, moves over a small distance on the wellpad and drills another without having to mobilize and remobilize. If not, then the rig count drops when the rig stops drilling and gets stacked somewhere.

    In that case, the number of wells drilled by a single rig would be a pretty telling indicator of the efficiency per rig. I do agree that there can be a long lag between the time the wells are drilled and the time the wells are completed - particularly in the current environment. One might drill a well to hold the lease and then leave the well unfinished until the economics warrant fracking it.

    With these wells that have already been drilled, you might be willing to spend the capital costs to simply frack the well at some point. The revenue from the initial "flush" production you describe might exceed the cost - giving you a positive cash flow event - but it probably wouldn't hurt to wait for prices that are a bit higher - based on your expectations of how soon prices will improve.

    However, the decision to drill an entirely new well to add more production is more of a stock market move to keep production levels from falling at companies. You also might find it getting done to meet the SEC rules for holding reserves (proved wells must be planned to be drilled within a five year period!). In this price environment, it's doubtful that a new well will pay for itself within a one year period and thus show up as cash flow positive on the balance sheet.

    Smaller stage spacing and larger fracs have indeed increased the recoverability of the oil in place for most of the major plays - leading to greater productivity per drilling rig. These more intensive frack jobs may cost a little more, but are sufficiently more productive to justify the expense.

    It's a difficult time for the industry and its investors. Those sweet spots currently getting drilled up "in an environment where they might barely be economic" could have produced another $60 per barrel during recent good times. Lots is being learned and desperate service companies are aggressively cutting costs to remain in business. It's a heroic effort and I greatly respect these fine companies that Art has described in his article.
  • mick on September 08 2015 said:
    I find it interesting how the shale oil industry is in a state of denial despite some of the hard facts seen on their balance sheets. Everyone has an opinion about the state of the industry but sometimes published financials tell the tale.

    I spent some time looking at the balance sheets and cash flow statements of 20 different frackers. I was shocked at what I saw. In addition to the large debt positions I noted that many of these firms have never had any free cash flow. I hear all of these comments about the great assets that these debt laden companies have but if that were so then why have so many of them never been cash flow positive? Most of what I saw was funded almost entirely by debt so as assets start to get written down so does equity and that will ultimately reveal that the level of equity in many of these companies is much less than what is being publically advertised.

    Of course, there are some assets out there which will be gobbled up by well to do companies but that number is going to be a lot less than some people think and when they are acquired then the purchaser will not be in such a rush to get more cash flow because they don't need it. American production will not immediately surge as prices rebound because many operators will no longer be in business. Those that are will be in no rush to add production.

    The only reason that many of these wells are being completed now is that there is a desperate need to get cash at any price to stave off the creditors who are now aware of just how serious the situation is. What amazes me is that this debt train has lasted as long as it has. The American public has never been told the truth about the industry that is supposed to make the U.S. "self sufficient" in energy within the decade.

    There was series of articles about this topic in the New York Times a few years ago. Alas, it was virtually ignored by the public and by investors. Google it if you want to see some insight that was detailed and very telling.

    What a mess this stuff is and we will hear much more about it before the end of 2015.
  • Russn8r on September 08 2015 said:
    Excellent work.

    What is still missing, however, is the opportunity cost, the grotesque waste, the self-reinforcing self-immolation, the pyramid scam, the con on investors, of producing 70-85% decline-rate wells during a price collapse ... selling - indeed, in a sense paying people to take - the majority of the oil the well will ever produce, during the worst of the collapse, instead of playing dead, shutting in, waiting a few months for the steep aggregate decline curve to shift the supply curve and let the price recover. Selling the majority of other people's oil - the majority of their wells - at a loss and a fraction of the price they could get a year from now.

    This is fitting, however, for a patch that flares and wastes an irrecoverable national resource, vast amounts of natural gas, like Nigeria or some other corrupt 3rd-world tribal socialist half-Jihadi hellhole that looks like a lighted city from outer space.

    When investors realize what the shale fluffers have been doing with other people's money and oil to keep the lights on - giving it away - they'll be hunting them with dogs.
  • OldOilMan on September 09 2015 said:
    Excellent Article by Arthur Berman!

    Years ago I worked in the petroleum division of a money center bank. One of the critical lending criteria was not lending more than the reserve half life; that is the NPV at that future point in time when half the volume of reserves would be produced out. The purpose of that criteria was to insure there was enough reserve asset remaining to restructure the debt for a recovery of the outstanding, in the event there was a price collapse during the term of the financing; thus protecting the lenders and the borrowers from oil price deck/forecasts made at the time of financing; if future oil prices fell below projections. This also provided time for a down cycle in oil prices to recover.

    In conventional oil reserves the reserve/production half life is generally 4 to 6 years out, well within the term of the debt financing; as convention reserves have a nominal decline rate. However, in unconventional shale oil reserves the production/reserve half life is very, very short; given the extraordinary 80% annual decline rate. It would not be a surprise given this character of shale oils decline rate that the reserve/production half life for shale oil is less than 2 years to be conservative.

    Since we are about one year into the oil price collapse, this gives shale oil lenders and borrowers less than a year remaining to the reserve/production half life on wells drilled within the last 12 months. They're far past the half life on many thousands of wells drilled over a year ago. With an estimated $235 billion of outstanding debt to shale producers that is coming due (in the near term and over the next 5 years), there is and will be little assets to restructure or recover outstandings as shale wells turn into low production stripper wells beyond the half life. Therefore, it is understandable why lenders increased their debt to shale producers earlier this years; a Hail Mary pass, praying for a price recovery (that has yet to come); anything to forestall Armageddon; the losses on lenders are going to be horrendous, regardless of a price recover at this point, as Shale producers are effectively torching their assets with borrowed money.

    The insane strategy of continuing drilling in a price collapse is suicidal and the loss results are shown by the author above.
  • Russn8r on September 09 2015 said:
    P.S. The fact they're actually losing money to sell the bulk of each well at ridiculously low prices is powerful. But even that is a sort of red herring in the sense that it obscures the fundamental opportunity waste. Suppose they were making a penny a barrel, a dollar a barrel, even $10. Would that make it ok? No. Even that would be an economic waste, a loss in the opportunity cost sense. Is the point to prove how little profit can be made per barrel? To see how low a price they can sell the investors' oil for?

    Or is the goal to maximize discounted present value of profits? If the goal is to maximize NPV, then high decline-rate wells should be shut in during price collapses, and don't resume drilling until the price recovers. If "efficiency" is the goal, then keep drilling, completing and selling the oil at a fraction of what could be earned a few months or a year out.

    Also, when "capital expenditure" is only serving to replace rapidly declining production that was thrown away at low prices, those massive CapEx figures look start to look like OpEx. Worse, they start to look like donations to a cause, more than rational investments. Or a government using Other People's Money, when maximizing NPV and IRR is not an issue.

    Investors and lenders need to put some rational, flexible rules in place. e.g.,

    1. Hey, manager: That's OUR oil, OUR well, Our collateral, not yours to destroy. What do you think you're doing selling the bulk of it during a collapse?
    2. Stop drilling and completing when oil is below, say, $80 a barrel, net local price.
    3. Shut in all wells at a greater than 20% decline rate when the price is below, say, $60.
    4. If you don't have a buyer for our natural gas, don't waste it. Either re-inject it somewhere, or don't drill or produce the well.

    It would be legitimate for the government to step in on #4 as well:

    You own the gas, but you don't own the atmosphere. We can't directly order you to stop being idiots and wasting a national resource, but we can regulate your idiocy to keep you from wasting natural gas into the public's atmosphere for no compelling reason.
  • Scott on September 09 2015 said:
    As for hoping that the price of crude will rise enough in 1 or 2 years so that they can recover their investment...in that time they will have brought to surface and sold (gave away) about one half of the recoverable oil in that well. If after 2 years oil went to 100 dollars that well would probably still not pay. So why do investors keep shoveling money at this crowd? Because they're fooled by meaningless statics like oil production per drilling rig. Intentionally fooled I might add. The shale frackers all routinely overstate their proven reserves at investor presentations by up to 30 times what they are required to report to the SEC. I even saw , recently, the apparent oil production per drilling rig improvement cited in a UBS. report , by people that should know better. If I've got 20 rigs drilling and a 100 well back -log to frack and bring into production and I rack half my rigs and keep fracking, my production per rig is guarrateed to shoot up. Ask a rig push how much oil his rig produces and he"s not gonna know how to answer you. He'll know at that point that you know nothing about the oil business, as do most of the journalists writing for some very reputable publications. Saw a photo of a triple rig drilling in the bakken and the caption said...A fracking crew working in North Dakota... Just about every instance of mal-investment starts with mis-information.
  • aberman on September 09 2015 said:

    I am fully aware of what you call the "big picture."

    It is the world of magical thinking in which real money is never spent and breaking even means paying for your lease operating costs with the revenue from selling the oil and gas produced, and pretending you have no other costs.

    This is like applying for a loan and only showing your paycheck and your costs to get to work each day but omitting your mortgage payment, all household expenses, food, loans, credit card debt, etc.

    That's the marginal cost of working but it sure isn't your marginal cost of living. And it won't fly with the bank.

    I understand what marginal cost means. Do you?

    The "big picture" that you miss is that for EOG and Pioneer, operating costs plus capital costs ARE the marginal cost of producing the next unit to keep production flat.

    Why do you suppose that oil and gas companies are laying off staff, cutting capital programs and selling assets? By your logic, they are doing great and shouldn't have to do this as long as revenues from oil and gas sales cover operating costs.

    In your world, cash flow and income statements are irrelevant.

    I wonder why the SEC requires that all public companies file them every quarter and people go to jail if they are not true? Because they are irrelevant and no one cares about them?

    The economic fantasy world that you describe implies that shale plays are exempt from the fundamentals of profit and loss.

    Good luck living in that reality.
  • Mick on September 10 2015 said:
    To Scott and Aberman:

    Thanks for telling it like it is, those posts were quite refreshing.

    As I said in my earlier writings, I am shocked that so many people in the U.S. have been taken in by this scam. Very few investors have stopped to look at the real fundamentals and most of these talking heads on the idiot box are the most misinformed people in the World.

    I was watching BNN the other day and they brought on an "expert" who had on a worn trading floor jacket. He looked like he was selling used cars in gopher gulch Texas. He told the audience that most shale frackers now had costs of 20 bucks per barrel (pure fantasy, just made up nonsense) and that within a few years the U.S. would be totally energy self sufficient. It was pure Mom and apple pie stuff that sounded like it was from a script in a John Wayne movie. The floor trader was practically in tears as he said it.

    The blonde on BNN did not bother to ask him any tough questions, instead she giggled and thanked him up and down for his "qualified opinion." I couldn't believe how this now qualifies as financial reporting. Unfortunately, 90 % of the public believes all this junk. When the shale apocalypse strikes these so called experts are going to look very foolish but they will never be held to account for their irresponsible recommendations to investors.
  • Mick on September 10 2015 said:

    According to EIA figures released today, American oil production is down another 83K bbls/d this week. Production numbers are now somewhere around 9.1 million per day, revised downward from 9.6 million bbls/d just 3 months ago. That's a big drop, stay tuned.

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