Last year, oil prices hit multi-decade highs shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, prompting the Biden administration to urge U.S. producers and OPEC to ramp up production at a faster clip so as to rein in spiraling oil prices. However, Saudi Arabia and its allies responded by doing the exact opposite, cutting production when oil prices started plummeting. Predictably, the United States and Europe were irked by the cartel’s defiance, with President Joe Biden’s administration accusing Saudi Arabia of colluding with Russia and supporting its war in Ukraine.
Well, President Biden can at least thank his lucky stars that the U.S. Shale Patch paid heed to his clarion call: the Energy Information Administration (EIA) has forecast total U.S. output will hit 12.61M bbl/day in the current year, eclipsing the previous record of 12.32M bbl/day set in 2019's and easily beating last year's 11.89M bbl/day. U.S. crude oil output is up 9% Y/Y blunting OPEC’s efforts to keep supplies low in a bid to goose prices.
There is little doubt the U.S. Shale Patch is largely responsible for keeping oil markets well supplied and oil prices low: Rystad Energy has estimated that whereas OPEC and its allies have announced cuts amounting to ~6% of 2022's production, non-OPEC supply has made up for two-thirds of those cuts, with the U.S. accounting for half of that.
Energy experts have generally been bearish about U.S. crude supply with many arguing it has already peaked, “The projection suggests the pace of US shale growth, one of the few sources of major new supply in recent year, is slowing despite oil prices hovering at around $90 a barrel, about double most domestic producers’ breakeven costs. If the trend continues, it would deprive the global market of additional barrels to help make up for OPEC+ production cuts and disruption to Russian supplies amid its invasion of Ukraine,” Bloomberg said, Related: Bullish Sentiment Is Slowly Building In Oil Markets
Bloomberg cited comments by ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) CEO Ryan Lance that rising costs as well as limited supplies of labor and equipment were some of the problems that were hamstringing efforts by U.S. shale producers to quickly ramp up production. However, Bloomberg also noted that the biggest factor behind the slowdown is a change of the playbook by the majority of U.S. shale companies from focussing on growth and expansion to more capital discipline and returning more cash to shareholders.
Luckily for the Shale Patch, improving drilling and cost efficiency not only means they are able to squeeze more for less but they are also able to eke out a profit at much lower oil prices. According to J.P. Morgan, U.S. drilling and fracking costs have declined 36% since 2014, significantly lowering the breakeven points of many producers. For instance JPM points out that increased efficiency means EOG Resources (NYSE:EOG), for example, can earn as much from oil priced at $42/bbl today as it would have from $86/bbl oil in 2014; in contrast, Saudi Arabia reportedly requires ~$81/bbl oil to balance its books.
The U.S. shale revolution dramatically reshaped the world energy markets. The shale boom was one of the most impressive growth stories, from take off in 2008 to the Permian stealing the mantle from Saudi Arabia’s Ghawar as the world’s highest producing oilfield in a little over a decade.
Overall, Reuters has estimated that, “U.S. petroleum production is at least 10-11 million bpd higher than it would have been without horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.’’
Unfortunately, the Shale Patch has lately been struggling to ramp up production due to a litany of challenges including pressure from investors to boost returns, limited equipment and workers as well as a lack of capital.
But shale giant ExxonMobil Corp. (NYSE:XOM) is now betting that shale producers can double crude output from their existing wells by employing novel fracking technologies.
“There’s just a lot of oil being left in the ground. Fracking’s been around for a really long time, but the science of fracking is not well understood,” Exxon Chief Executive Officer Darren Woods said Thursday at the Bernstein Strategic Decisions conference. Woods has revealed that Exxon is currently working on two specific areas to improve fracking. First off, the company is trying to frack more precisely along the well so that more oil-soaked rock gets drained. It’s also looking for ways to keep the fracked cracks open longer so as to boost the flow of oil.
Luckily, the U.S. Shale Patch won’t have to wait for Exxon to perfect its new fracking technologies. There's already a proven technology for oil producers to return to existing wells and give them a second, high-pressure blast to increase output for a fraction of the cost of finishing a new well: shale well refracturing.
Refracturing is an operation designed to restimulate a well after an initial period of production, and can restore well productivity to near original or even higher rates of production as well as extend the productive life of a well. Re-fracking can be something of a booster shot for producers--a quick increase in output for a fraction of the cost of developing a new well.
While refracturing has never really gone mainstream, the technique is seeing higher adoption as drilling technology improves, aging oilfields erode output, and companies try to do more with less. According to a report published in the Journal of Petroleum Technology, new research from the Eagle Ford Shale in south Texas shows that refractured wells using liners are even capable of outperforming new wells despite the latter benefiting from more modern completion designs.
JPT also estimates that North Dakota’s Bakken Shale straddles some 400 openhole wells capable of generating an excess of $2 billion if refractured. Mind you, that estimate is derived from oil prices at $60/bbl vs. this year’s average oil price of almost $90/bbl. According to Garrett Fowler, chief operating officer for ResFrac, a refrac can be up to 40% cheaper than a new well and double or triple oil flows from aging wells.
How Refracs Work
Fowler says the most common re-frac method involves placing a steel liner inside the original well bore and then blasting holes through the steel casing to access the reservoir. The process typically uses half as much steel and frac sand than a new well
Refrac makes a lot of sense in the current inflationary environment. Back in April, Texas shale producer Callon Petroleum Company (NYSE: CPE) revealed that frac sand, drill pipe and labor costs have increased drilling and well-completion service costs ~20% Y/Y. Callon and Hess Corp. (NYSE: HES), both of which drill in North Dakota's Bakken shale, have been forced to hike capital spending budgets over the costs with Callon adding $75 million to its original budget while Hess added $200 million to its spending,
"Techniques like re-fracturing will allow the industry to continue to harvest the oil and gas out of these reservoirs," said Stephen Ingram, a regional vice president at hydraulic fracturing firm Halliburton Company (NYSE: HAL).
Another key benefit: re-fracs do not require additional state permits or new negotiations with landowners. They are also less disruptive to the environment because well sites already have road access.
"Considering inflation, supply chain issues, and rising wages, now is a great time for operators to start looking at wells for re-frac opportunities," Matt Johnson, CEO of energy consultancy Primary Vision Network, has told Reuters.
Refracs have also demonstrated higher recovery rates: in URTeC 3724057, Roberta Barba, a longtime completions consultant and CEO of Houston-based Integrated Energy Services, et al. share a case study from the Eagle Ford Shale in south Texas involving five refractured wells. The refractured wells had a combined average post-refrac EUR of 13.2% compared to an initial EUR of 7.4% average by seven new infill wells with modern completion designs.
Robert Barba, a longtime completions consultant and CEO of Houston-based Integrated Energy Services (IES).Estimated ultimate recovery (EUR) refers to potential production expected from an oil well or deposit and is made up of three components: proven reserves; probable reserves; and possible reserves.
The Authors of the paper say that despite the presumed advantages of a modern completion, refracs can increase stimulated reservoir volume “beyond what is achievable in a new completion”. This is attributed to the fact that as the reservoir depletes and pore pressure drops, fractures from a refrac tend to grow into a new direction and tap previously inaccessible portions of rock.
By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com
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