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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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$50 Oil Puts Shale To The Test

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U.S. oil production has skyrocketed this year, leaving even the most optimistic forecasts in the dust. But, the recent crash in oil prices could do what the much-hyped pipeline bottlenecks could not – slow down shale production.

Between 2015 and 2017, shale drilling activity fluctuated with oil prices (though on a several-month lag), with drillers deploying rigs and adding output when prices rose, and scrapping rigs and dialing back on activity when prices dipped. Drilling and production has always fluctuated with prices, but the much shorter lead times for shale compared to conventional drilling, meant that the oil market was responding much quicker to price changes.

The ebb and flow of drilling activity gave rise to the “shale band” theory, which dictates that oil prices had an upper and lower bound, largely decided by shale output. Whenever prices tested one of those limits, U.S. shale would steer them back into the middle of the range.

More specifically, if prices rose to, say, $60 per barrel, shale activity would ramp up and new supplies would come online, dragging prices back down below that threshold. If prices fell to $40 per barrel or below, drilling dried up and the drop (or slowdown in growth) tightened the market just enough to push prices back up.

Since late 2017, when the OPEC+ production cuts really began to bite, Brent prices reliably rose above $60 per barrel and stayed there. While prices bounced around this year, they did so above the roughly $40-$60 price range that dominated the oil market over the last several years. As such, U.S. shale continued to grow rapidly and consistently. Outages elsewhere in the world, combined with OPEC+ action, kept prices from falling. Related: Legendary Oil Trader Expects Crude Prices To Rebound

Until this past month. The crash in oil prices – down more than a third since October – could make the shale band theory relevant again. WTI is down in the low-$50s per barrel, and is starting to flirt with levels that could impact drilling operations. At $50 per barrel, “we generate enough cash to still grow our production single digits within our cash flow,” Whiting Petroleum’s CFO Michael Stevens said at an industry conference this month, according to the Wall Street Journal. “So $50 is an important floor for us.”

Moreover, while many shale drillers have cut their breakeven prices over the past few years, pressure from shareholders on capital discipline is much stronger than it used to be. In years past, shale drillers could pile on the debt, promising to eventually be profitable, and investors went along. That is no longer the case.

That means that the pressure to cut back in order to preserve profitability is potentially higher than it used to be.

On top of that, some shale regions are still suffering from discounts because of pipeline issues. So, while WTI is now in the low-$50s, some shale operators might be fetching even less. Earlier this year, Permian discounts exceeded $10 per barrel. The Bakken is expected to see its discount worsen as pipelines fill up. The flip side is that drilling techniques have advanced considerably over the last few years, boosting production rates and lowering cost. That could allow E&Ps to weather the current downturn – should it stick around – much better than last time. Related: India Looks To Double Its Natural Gas Usage

As the WSJ notes, the shale industry is in the midst of putting together drilling plans for 2019. Up until now, very few industry insiders or analyst forecasts had prices falling below $60 per barrel next year. The recent plunge could force a rethink. If the industry goes in a more conservative direction, shale output might not grow as much as previously thought.

With all of that said, OPEC+ could put an end to the latest slide in prices as early as next week. Rumors of a large production cut began circulating a few weeks ago, and the lower prices go, the more likely it is that the cartel will take action. At this point, with expectations of some sort of action largely priced in, inaction would likely drag prices down much farther. As such, it seems highly unlikely that OPEC+ will do nothing.


By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh G Salameh on November 27 2018 said:
    The US shale oil industry will never be profitable irrespective of oil prices. US shale oil producers are so heavily indebted to Wall Street to the extent that they will continue to produce oil even at a loss just to pay some of their outstanding debts.

    And despite the debts, the US shale oil industry will continue to operate not only because it satisfies part of US demand for oil but it also gives the United States a say in the global oil market and enables it to manipulate oil prices.

    No industry will survive the hundreds of billions of debts burdening the US shale industry unless there is a geopolitical motive by Wall Street investors supported by the US government to keep it afloat.

    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) and the Sightline Institute said in a newly published report that even after two and a half years of rising oil prices and growing expectations for improved financial results, a review of 33 publicly traded oil and gas fracking companies showed that the companies posted a combined $3.9 billion in negative cash flow in the first half of 2018. According to the IEEFA and the Sightline Institute, America’s fracking boom has been a world-class bust.

    This raises huge question marks about the future of the US shale industry. If the industry is still not profitable – after a decade of drilling, after major efficiency improvements since 2014, and after a sharp rebound in oil prices – when will it ever be profitable?

    Still, an MIT study published in December 2017 reached the conclusion that the US vastly overstates oil production forecasts and that the EIA has been exaggerating the effect of fracking technology on well productivity. According to this study, the EIA’s weekly forecasts could very well be overstating US oil production a by 1 mbd.

    You shouldn’t bank on OPEC deciding to cut production in its December meeting. The overwhelming OPEC members could be against any new cuts. Instead, they will demand that Saudi Arabia and Russia withdraw the 400,000 b/d and 250,000 b/d they respectively added to the market and return them to the previous 1.8 mbd cut under the OPEC/non-OPEC agreement. In so doing, the glut in the market could ease. Libya will also have to commit not to raise its oil production above 1.2 mbd if it is to continue to be exempted from the production cut agreement.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • D. R. Pearson on November 27 2018 said:
    It is always interesting to hear Dr Mamdouh G Salameh's view. His comments are backed by multiple references which lend credibility to his assessments.

    Please continue to contribute your interesting and credible comments Dr Salameh. Regards, D. R. Pearson.
  • S Morris on November 29 2018 said:
    When the concept of U.S. Shale Oil was brought up not too long ago, it was met with wails of laughter and derision, followed by worry, full-fledged panic and, ultimately, denial.

    Some outlier shale operations are profitable as low as $30 a barrel but what's important is how shale acts like a thermostat - when the price is high, shale output helps lower the price, dramatically cutting into profitability by Russia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and others. As the cost of crude drops to $45–$50 per barrel, individual companies slow drilling activity, and when prices rise over $55-65 per barrel, they’ll ramp up output.

    The United States is now the largest producer of oil and crude oil in the world and this has greatly helped our economy, our consumers, generated a tremendous number of jobs.

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