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Alex Kimani

Alex Kimani

Alex Kimani is a veteran finance writer, investor, engineer and researcher for Safehaven.com. 

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U.S. Shale Production Costs Are Finally Falling

  • U.S. shale production costs fell 1% year-on-year in the second quarter, marking the first time they have shrunk in three years.
  • Goldman Sachs: U.S. shale production costs are set to fall 10% in 2024.
  • Daily rig rates are down by more than 10% and the costs of steel and diesel are also trending lower.

After years of rising production costs amid post-pandemic inflation, the U.S. Shale Patch can finally breathe a sigh of relief after the cost trajectory hit a turning point. Production costs fell 1% year-on-year in the second quarter, marking the first time they have shrunk in three years. Drill pipe prices have halved this year, daily rig rates are down by more than 10% and the costs of steel and diesel are also trending lower. According to Goldman Sachs via Bloomberg, Drill pipe prices have fallen by 50% this year; daily rig rates are down by more than 10%, while the costs of diesel and steel have been gradually declining. Only labor has been defying this trend as wages continue rising.

Whereas a decline of a single percentage point might not make much of a difference on the bottom line, Goldman says costs will be 10% lower in 2024, enough to boost profits and cash flows significantly. Easing price pressures are most welcome: after two years of bummer earnings and copious cash flows, the U.S. oil and gas sector is set to record a decline on both metrics in the current year.

According to Moody's research report, industry earnings will stabilize overall in 2023, but remain below levels reached by recent peaks. The analysts note that commodity prices have declined from very high levels earlier in 2022, but predicted that prices are likely to remain cyclically strong through 2023. This, combined with modest growth in volumes, will support strong cash flow generation for oil and gas producers. Moody's estimates that the U.S. energy sector's EBITDA for 2023 will fall to $585B in 2023 from $$623B in 2022. The analysts say that low capex, rising uncertainty about the expansion of future supplies and high geopolitical risk premium will, however, continue to support cyclically high oil prices.  Related: TotalEnergies CEO: Oil Companies Should Set Carbon Targets At Upcoming COP28

But the decline in earnings could come in worse than expected if current forecasts are any indication. U.S. oil and gas major ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) revealed in an SEC filing on Wednesday that it expects to book sharply lower Q2 2023 earnings mainly due to low natural gas prices and lower refining margins. Exxon booked record earnings to the tune of $11.4 billion in Q1 2023, double from the $5.48 billion for Q1 2022. Earnings per share clocked in at $2.79 for the first quarter, beating the Wall Street consensus of $2.60. Exxon has predicted Q2 2023 earnings will clock in at ~$7.8 billion, a sharp drop from $11.4 billion for Q1 2023, with the company blaming $2.2 billion lower earnings in the upstream division due to lower natural gas prices, as well as another  $2.2 billion decline in the energy products division, due to lower industry margins.

Mixed Oil Price Outlook

For the second consecutive month, the leading OPEC producer, Saudi Arabia, has extended its voluntary 1M bbl/day oil production cut for another month, this time till August. The reduction will take the country's production to ~9M bbl/day, the lowest level in several years. Saudi has been single-handedly sacrificing sales volume in a bid to goose weak oil prices, but has so far reaped little reward

The bears remain unconvinced, with Marwan Younes, chief investment officer of hedge fund Massar Capital Management, saying oil price gains are likely to be short-lived.

"The problem is when you cut production in an already weak environment, the impact is limited. It looks like we could be here for a while," Ole Hansen, head of commodity strategy at Saxo Bank, has told the Wall Street Journal.

On Tuesday, Morgan Stanley lowered its oil price forecast and predicted an oil surplus during the first half of 2024 thanks to non-OPEC supply growing faster than demand. MS has lowered its Brent price outlook for Q3 2023 to $75 from $77.50 per barrel and cut Q4 2023 forecast to $70 from $75. The Wall Street bank has also cut its oil price forecast for 2024 by $5, and now sees prices at $70 in Q1 2024; $72.50 in Q2 2024, $75 in Q3 2024 and $80 for the final quarter.

"Despite low investment, non-OPEC+ supply has been growing robustly and supply from Iran and Venezuela has been creeping higher. We still model stock draws in Q3, but expect oil price softness to continue as the market's focus shifts to H1 2024 when balances look in surplus," the bank said in a note.

But the bulls are still holding the fort: on Tuesday, TD Securities said that oil prices can still rally over the next 6 months regardless of ongoing demand fears as well as growing supply from the likes of Venezuela, Iran, and even Russia.

"We do expect crude to rebound in the second half of the year. We think approaching $90 is probably not unreasonable in the next six months or so as the worst of the fears about a recession moderate. When we look at demand growth for 2023, we're still looking north of two million barrels per day, and we continue to expect OPEC plus to be fairly well-disciplined on the supply side," Bart Melek, Global Head of Commodity Strategy at TD Securities stated in a recent investor note.

Last month, Goldman Sachs' oil ultrabull Jeff Currie once again cut his Brent forecast for December, this time to $86 a barrel from $95 and $100 before that. Currie cited increasing supply from Russia, Iran, and Venezuela; growing recession fears, and persistent headwinds to higher prices from higher interest rates for his growing bearishness. His forecast is still good for nearly 20% upside.

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Oil prices kicked off the second half of the year, trading around the $71 per barrel level and have steadily traded below their 100-day moving average since the end of April. Oil prices have declined nearly 12% in the year-to-date.

By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com

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