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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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U.S. Shale Drillers To Become Profitable For The First Time


U.S. oil companies have stepped up their hedging for 2018 production, locking in sales at higher prices.

In the fourth quarter, U.S. producers increased the share of their 2018 output secured under hedges to 48 percent, up from just 30 percent in the third quarter, according to a Goldman Sachs note. “Hedging has moved from normal levels to above-normal levels, aided by an increase in oil futures (2018 WTI now $60),” the investment bank wrote. “This should allow many producers to grow, while spending within cash ?ow during 2018.”

Goldman says that drillers will incrementally add more hedges for this year, and they are just beginning to do so for 2019 production. About 9 percent of 2019 production is hedged at an average price of $58 per barrel.

The bank estimates that many shale companies will be able to balance their books with WTI at $56.50. Because WTI is currently trading just above $60, that suggests that many shale drillers could post positive cash flow this year, essentially for the first time.

The majority of companies are hedged at roughly 50 percent, which should help them maintain capital discipline, Goldman analysts said. 

Meanwhile, Standard Chartered’s survey of 73 U.S. energy companies finds that hedging increased by 22 percent in the three months ending on February 1, a sign that the shale industry continued to step up their hedges into 2018 as oil prices rallied at the start of the year. Standard Chartered puts the proportion of 2018 oil production from the surveyed companies at 63 percent. Related: Canada Is Facing A Heavy Crude Crisis

For its part, Goldman forecasts an average oil price of $72.50 per barrel for this year, which would mean that the majority of companies would lose out by being locked into hedges. If prices stay where they are now – in the low $60s – there would be not much change in earnings for the hedged versus non-hedged producer.

While there is a danger of missing out on the upswing if the oil market tightens later this year, hedges will also protect companies from any market downturn. Forecasts of explosive shale growth are being watched with concern, and hedge funds and other money managers have recently stepped up their short bets on oil futures.

Also, while the WTI futures curve has been in a state of backwardation for much of the past two months, the curve has recently flattened out as the bullish sentiment has started to disappear. The spread for the first two WTI contracts is "dangerously close to switching from backwardation to contango," Bob Yawger, director of futures division at Mizuho Securities USA Inc., told Bloomberg. "That would be a very negative price development.”

A contango is a situation in which front month oil futures trade at a discount to longer-dated futures, which is typically interpreted as a sign of bearishness. Backwardation, in which front month contracts trade at a premium – the opposite of contango – had emerged a few months ago for the first time in a long time, and the development was seen as a sign that the oil market was finally beginning to balance.

Related: 44 Things You Didn’t Know About Oil

The return of a contango would likely cause oil trading to become more volatile, and perhaps could push spot prices down. “If you’re taking a speculative short position, you’re looking at what U.S. production is going to do,” Ashley Petersen, an analyst at Stratas Advisors, said in a March 9 Bloomberg interview. “There’s starting to be a little bit of a turn in sentiment.”

However, Goldman Sachs does not agree that things are about to sour. The investment bank says that oil demand “remains robust,” shale drillers actually showing some relative restraint when it comes to new drilling, and OPEC continues to post high compliance rates with their production limits. That will likely push inventories well below the five-year average by the third quarter, the bank says.


But because there is such wide variation in expectations for oil prices, it is no surprise that so many shale companies have locked in hedges to at least offer some certainty.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh G Salameh on March 18 2018 said:
    If we are to believe announcements by the EIA about rising US oil production of which more than 50% is shale oil, then shale oil producers are neither showing any production discipline nor focusing on making profit for their shareholders.

    The truth is that shale drillers can’t reduce their level of current production even if they wanted because in so doing they go bankrupt. They continue to produce shale oil in order to have something to sell to pay some of their old outstanding debts and also to get more funding from Wall Street. In so doing, they are digging themselves deeper and deeper in a hole. It is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

    The US shale oil industry has been indulged by Wall Street for so long to the extent that it has become uneconomic. The answer to their malaise is to cut production drastically even if the majority of the producers will go bankrupt and for Wall Street to sever their lifeline leaving afloat companies that have the resources to continue. This might shatter for a while US outlandish ambition of overtaking Russia and Saudi Arabia to become the world’s largest oil producer and also the virtually impossible ambition of becoming self-sufficient in oil. But at the same time, it will rescue the US shale oil industry which has been gaining more importance in the US economy since the shale revolution ten years ago.

    And whilst Goldman Sachs’s price projections have been so fickle moving from one extreme to another, I, for once, agree with them that oil prices in 2018 will range from $70-$75 buoyed by rising global oil demand and a virtually re-balanced oil market.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • CorvetteKid on March 27 2018 said:
    Dr. Salameh, sorry, but that is nothing but well-written baloney. Which means well-written or lousily-written, it's still baloney.

    If $26/bbl. oil and an average oil price the last 3 years of under $50/bbl didn't bankrupt 95% of shale companies, then WTI and Brent in the $60's won't either. The shale companies like Sandridge that went bankrupt were running at 4:1 leverage with oil at $100/bbl. That went to 10:1 or higher when oil collapsed.

    Most of the surviving E&Ps entered the downturn at 2:1 or less leverage. They topped out at about 4:1. And they had better assets and more financial flexibility than the companies that went bankrupt.

    Besides, even companies that file Chapter 11 won't cease production -- they will just wipe out the debt and start anew. Or sell to deeper-pocketed invstors.

    The notion that they are pumping and producing oil to pay debt is nonsense. Any CFA Level 1 candidae realizes you don't generate negative cash flows and EBITDA to pay down debt.

    Finally, if you think that oil is headed towards $75/bbl, shale is going to be swimming in $$$.
  • Ziggy on March 29 2018 said:
    To be honest;
    If you look at many of the shale drillers cash flow statements in the last years, they still are not profitable yet, as another poster has stated, they still produce oil. Lets not forget, they are drilling out the best zones first. Just have a look, they skunking around the stack play in Oklahoma. Why ? the Permian has gotten too expensive in tier one. And at 65.00 oil tier two just doesn't cut it.
    I have no reason why the glut narrative persists, in the face of so much factual information, but it does, only makes one wonder whom is feeding this material out.

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