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Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith is Oilprice.com's Latin-America correspondent. Matthew is a veteran investor and investment management professional. He obtained a Master of Law degree and is currently located…

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U.S. Shale Companies Are Ready To Expand

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The latest oil rally, which sees crude trading at close to its highest point in three years, is sufficient to garner considerable attention from market pundits, industry insiders and investors alike. It has raised the ugly specter of a sharp uptick in U.S. oil production driven by the much-anticipated shale oil boom.

Yet, there are signs that the potential for U.S. shale oil companies to rapidly expand production and return to the boom years witnessed before the prolonged oil slump appears overblown.

There are a range of constraints poised to prevent the rapid production growth many mainstream analysts had been predicting.

It was only in early December last year that an MIT study was released concluding that the U.S. vastly overstates oil production forecasts and that the EIA has been exaggerating the effect of fracking technology on well productivity.

According to MIT research, the EIA assumes that regular improvements in drilling technology and well design are boosting output at new wells by around 10 percent, yet their own research shows that it is closer to 6.5 percent. That, along with the EIA’s own monthly production data, which shows that U.S. oil output between January and November 2017 grew at a far more modest monthly average of 1.3 percent, indicates that the EIA’s weekly forecasts could very well be overstating U.S. oil production.

In the past, the optimistic figures provided by the EIA have suppressed the price of West Texas Intermediate or WTI, and this in part has been one of the contributing factors to the significant premium that has existed between WTI and Brent. Related: The Oil Bubble Has Burst. What Now?

Nevertheless, that premium is closing, having fallen from over $6 per barrel at the start of 2018 to less than $4 for the last week of January 2018 amid falling U.S. inventories.

Some analysts think this could lead to a reduction in demand for U.S. oil exports, which would reduce the incentive for shale oil producers to ramp up production.

Claims that shale oil possesses exceptionally low breakeven costs, which, coupled with WTI trading at over $60 per barrel, will spark a massive surge in activity appear overstated. While it’s true that considerable improvements in technology and drilling techniques have caused costs to fall, they aren’t as low as many analysts believe.

In late 2017, Reuters reported that an analysis of second quarter 2017 financial results revealed that breakeven costs were $50 per barrel — well above the sub $40 prices claimed by Rystad Energy in mid-2016. Breakeven costs are different from company to company as well as shale formation to shale formation, making them unreliable indicators on which to solely base production growth analysis.

Despite claims that shale oil companies intend to significantly boost production with WTI trading at over $60 a barrel, there are growing signs of restraint.

Bottom line: Unconventional oil producers have yet to demonstrate that they can consistently make profits.

According to oil industry consultancy Wood Mackenzie, that won’t occur until WTI is routinely trading at $63 per barrel, which they believe is unlikely until 2020. Related: Oil Prices Tank As U.S. Drillers Add Massive Number Of Rigs

There’s also considerable pressure being applied to shale oil companies by institutional investors to exercise restraint and avoid the excesses of the shale oil boom. Excesses of the shale oil boom and the sharp decline of oil prices were also subjected to by shareholders and institutional investors. That has seen industry leaders promise far greater restraint and to take a disciplined approach to the deployment of capital as well as drilling in an attempt to reduce debt and generate returns for shareholders.

If they follow through on their promises, which according to Goldman Sachs is highly likely, it’s another factor that reduces the likelihood of any substantial uptick in U.S. oil production occurring.

Another factor that many analysts who believe that shale could come roaring back is that oilfield services are becoming quite constrained. When this is considered in conjunction with rising costs and growing labor shortages, not only will it slow down any rapid expansion of shale oil production, but it will trigger an increase in breakeven costs, making it less attractive to drill.

Executive chairman and CEO of Eagle Ford shale driller Freedom Oil and Gas, Chuck Yeager, believes that a lack of capacity in the oil field services industry will act as a constraint on drilling activity. He went on to state:


"The services industry is pretty well fully-utilized and is not rapidly gaining capacity.”

While some analysts believe that higher prices will lead a surge in output, there are several factors that could prevent shale production from rapidly expanding and threatening higher oil prices.

By Matthew D. Smith of Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh G Salameh on February 11 2018 said:
    The MIT study was not the first to reach the conclusion that the US vastly overstates oil production forecasts and that the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) has been exaggerating the effect of fracking technology on well productivity.

    Many keen observers of the global oil market and oil experts (myself included) have stopped taking pronouncements by the EIA and the International Energy Agency (IEA) about increases in US shale oil production and rising US oil inventories seriously. The Saudi oil minister, Mr Khalid Al Falih, publicly accused the IEA in Davos of hyping about US shale oil.

    It is no coincidence that every time oil prices showed signs of heading upward, the EIA and IEA not only come forward with their highly exaggerated forecasts but they also treat these forecasts as if they actual figures.

    The fact that US oil production between January and November 2017 grew at a far more modest monthly average of 1.3%, indicates that the EIA’s weekly forecasts could very well be overstating US oil production between 700,000 barrels a day (b/d) and 1 million barrels a day (mbd).

    What is more surprising is the claim by both the EIA and IEA that US oil production in 2017 averaged 10.3 mbd when in fact it was 8.94 mbd. With a monthly average growth of 1.3%, the projections for US oil production for 2018 and 2019 should be 9.06 mbd and 9.18 mbd respectively. This means that EIA’s most recent projections of US oil production averaging some 10.5 mbd in 2018 and even hitting 11 mbd by December 2018 are so exaggerated that they should be taken with a huge pinch of salt.

    The US shale oil industry will never be a profitable industry. US shale oil producers are so deeply in debt that they have become like the saying of “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. They are heavily indebted to Wall Street to the extent that they continue to produce oil even at a loss just to pay some of their outstanding debts.

    The oil prices did not fall in the last ten days because of the EIA’s revised projections of US oil production but because of the turmoil in the Wall Street and other global financial markets.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Anonymous on February 11 2018 said:
    If restraint is 1.2 MM bpd NOV17 versus NOV16 (or 0.85 MM bpd growth in last 3 months), than I need to know what non restraint is. Seriously, how can anyone look at recent production and call it restrained?

  • Ness on February 11 2018 said:
    EIA last week proved that MIT is wrong. Shale CEOs will take an OPEC gift and do whatever they can to destroy it. Its the reason why most investors have left O&G and now its just a day trading and short play
    Until you get younger blood in management nothing will change.
  • yopft on February 18 2018 said:
    Recommend that any attempt to assess the future & current level of production in the Permian Basin should include a drive East on I-20 from El Paso to Pecos, Texas then South to Ft. Stockton... & back West to El Paso on I-10... "at night"... the vast number of gas flares is "enlightening"... reminds me of the Eagle Ford Shale back in 2011 "on steroids" & illustrating activity in the mid & western part of the stacked shale deposits... (sorta ah boots-on- tha- ground approach)

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