The extraordinary cost reductions achieved by North American oil and gas companies have likely reached their limit, and any boost in profitability for much of the U.S. shale and Canadian oil sands industries will have to come from higher oil prices, according to a new report from Moody’s Investors Service.
Moody’s studied 37 oil and gas companies in Canada and the U.S., concluding that although the oil industry has dramatically slashed its cost of production in the past three years and is currently in the midst of posting much better financials this year, there is little room left for more progress.
“After substantially improving their cost structures through 2015 and 2016, North American exploration and production (E&P) companies will demonstrate meaningful capital efficiency to the extent the West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil price is above $50 per barrel and the Henry Hub natural gas price is at least $3.00 per MMBtu,” Moody's said. In other words, WTI will need to rise further if the industry is to improve its financial position.
The report is another piece of evidence that suggests the U.S. shale industry is perhaps struggling a bit more than is commonly thought. U.S. shale has been portrayed as nimble, lean and quick to respond to oil price changes. And while that is largely true, strong profits remain elusive, despite the huge uptick in production.
Shale drillers have substantially lowered their breakeven prices, but further reductions will be difficult to achieve, Moody's Vice President Sreedhar Kona said in a statement.
“Higher than $50 per barrel WTI essential for a meaningful return on capital," Moody’s said.
The findings are important for a few reasons. First, it suggests that if WTI remains stuck at about $50 per barrel, U.S. shale drillers might be forced to reign in their ambitions, because they won’t generate enough cash to reinvest in growth. Second, shale drillers might actually worsen their financial position if they pursue growth. Spending more to produce more—while that could lead to more oil sales—might not necessarily be the wisest strategy.
For similar reasons, Jim Chanos, short-seller and founder of Kynikos Associates, has made some headlines shorting Continental Resources. He argues that shale companies simply have to spend too much to keep production going. Shale drillers “are creatures of the capital markets,” he told Bloomberg. “Because the wells deplete so quickly, they constantly need to raise money to replace the assets. And this is the crux of the story.”
Another significant observation is that the shaky financial position for some shale drillers also suggests that the downside risk to oil prices might not be as serious as once thought. The oil market has tried to assess how quickly shale production would come roaring back. Reports that shale companies were posting juicy profits at very low oil prices has likely factored into heady projections for shale output. The EIA has repeatedly projected that shale output would average 10 million barrels per day next year (although they have revised that down recently to just 9.8 mb/d).
But that might be overly optimistic if a long list of shale companies are not posting “meaningful” returns on capital. Related: Submerged Turbines Could Replace 10 Nuclear Reactors In Japan
“The market may well discover it has been asleep at the wheel and far too relaxed about shale keeping a ceiling on prices forever,” Ben Luckock, a senior executive at oil trader Trafigura, told an industry conference in Singapore last week. Bloomberg surveyed a bunch of oil traders and energy executives at the conference, and the general sense was that oil would trade between $50 and $60 per barrel, up from an informal consensus of between $40 and $60 last year. While there are many reasons for the newfound bullishness, more modest expectations about shale growth is certainly one of them.
In a separate report focusing on larger integrated oil companies, Moody’s came to a similar conclusion—that the substantial improvement in the financial position of the oil industry over the past year is poised to slow down. All of the highly-touted cost reductions and efficiency gains have already been “realized.” Moody’s lowered its outlook for these large oil companies in 2018 from “positive” to simply “stable.”
By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com
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