The Permian isn’t just suffering from a bottleneck for oil, but also for natural gas.
In 2016, for instance, gas flows leaving the Permian typically clocked in at about 3.6 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d), according to S&P Global Platts. That number has ballooned to 6.3 Bcf/d as of May 2018.
Obviously, the surge in gas flows from the Permian is the result of a massive increase in gas production. Gas output has surged more than 135 percent since 2013 and is expected to rise to just shy of 10.5 Bcf/d (including natural gas liquids) in June 2018. The problem is that the region’s ceiling on takeaway capacity stands at about 7.3 Bcf/d.
Skyrocketing natural gas production has unsurprisingly weighed on regional prices. According to S&P Global Platts, natural gas prices at the Waha Hub in West Texas traded at an 8-cent per MMBtu discount to Henry Hub two years ago, but that discount widened to about $1/MMBtu this month.
With so much gas on their hands, Permian drillers have resorted to higher rates of flaring. The Environmental Defense Fund estimates that top Permian producers are flaring as much as 10 percent of their gas. “This flaring is so extreme, it can be seen from space,” EDF says. “In 2015 alone, enough Texas Permian natural gas was flared to serve all of the Texas household needs in the Permian counties for two and a half years.”
S&P Global Platts reported that gas flows to Mexico have increased over the past few weeks, relieving some pressure. But infrastructure within Mexico hasn’t been able to keep up with the supply of gas north of the border, so some of the pipelines are under-utilized. In any event, the gas volumes moving to Mexico will be swamped by new supply coming online in the Permian. At some point, the glut of gas could force curtailments in drilling. Related: OPEC Could “Relax” Production Cuts
Surplus gas is the byproduct of the frenzied pace of oil drilling. Meanwhile, the bottleneck for oil is arguably just as bad, except because oil is the primary target for shale drillers in the Permian – and not gas – the inability to move oil will be a much bigger obstacle to higher production levels.
Clogged pipelines and a crowded shale patch are starting to force some companies to look elsewhere. For example, ConocoPhillips is looking to places like the Eagle Ford and the Bakken because the Permian is becoming saturated. “Now that people have left the Eagle Ford and gone to the Permian and other places around the U.S., we're seeing the opportunity," Conoco CEO Ryan Lance said earlier this month, according to the Houston Chronicle. "The cost structure is lower, and we're not seeing the sort of rapid inflation you're seeing in the Permian." Conoco’s output in the Eagle Ford (163,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day) vastly exceeds its operations in the Permian (19,000 boe/d).
That strategy certainly goes against the grain – a lot of shale-focused drillers have disposed of Eagle Ford and Bakken assets in order to become increasingly concentrated in the Permian. Conoco is going in the opposite direction.
However, they actually aren’t the only ones pivoting away from the Permian as West Texas becomes too crowded. The Eagle Ford and the Bakken have seen a revival of sorts over the past few quarters, with rig counts and production rebounding. Shale executives have begun to boast about their diversified holdings when speaking to shareholders or analysts, a marked shift from the allure of the pure-play Permian driller.
With both gas and oil pipeline capacity just about tapped out, shale companies could be forced to cut back on the pace of drilling. New pipelines are in the works, but new conduits aren’t expected to come online until the second half of 2019. Related: Will The U.S. Push Venezuela Into The Abyss?
Surplus oil is currently being sold locally in the Midland region, depressing prices. The discount for WTI in Midland relative to Cushing ballooned to double digits this month, which is to say, Permian drillers have been getting less than $60 per barrel for their oil while everyone else is selling WTI at just over $70.
But while there are plenty of warning signs that the Permian is overheating, any curtailments have yet to show up in the data. The EIA expects the Permian to add 78,000 bpd of new supply in June compared to May, and 225 million cubic feet per day of extra gas supply. Plus, the Permian has seen an additional 15 rigs added into the field since April.
However, there is a bit of a lag time between price signals and a change in drilling plans, so the damage from the blowout in the Midland price differential due to the sudden lack of pipeline capacity has yet to be truly reflected in the production figures.
By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com
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