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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Running Out Of Sweet Spots: Shale Growth May Not Materialize

  • U.S. shale drillers are looking to boost production in the short term
  • Industry data suggests that well depletion is advancing
  • Drillers remain upbeat about the short term forecast for shale oil production
Drilling rig

During the last shale oil boom when producers were racing to see who could pump the most the fastest, some experts warned that shale oil had a flaw that would come to haunt these producers: wells were quick to start producing but also quick to deplete. Now, industry data suggests that the depletion is advancing. The Wall Street Journal’s Colin Eaton cited reserve inventory data from the shale patch in a recent analysis that pointed to a stable decline that may be irreversible. Eaton also quoted industry executives as making plans for such an irreversible development.

That fossil fuels are finite is no news. It was one of the main arguments in previous renewable energy pushes before emissions became the number-one priority. Technologically, oil and gas resources can be stretched to near infinity as drilling technology advances further and further. Yet this happens at a cost, and it seems that for the time being, the U.S. shale oil industry is not convinced it’s worth paying that cost.

It is this decline in cheaply available oil that is forcing U.S. shale drillers to stay disciplined, the WSJ’s Eaton wrote, despite rising oil prices: West Texas Intermediate is trading at over $90 per barrel for the first time since 2014.

“You just can’t keep growing 15% to 20% a year,” Pioneer Natural Resources Scott Sheffield told Eaton. “You’ll drill up your inventories. Even the good companies.”

Despite this, Chevron and Exxon are planning a substantial boost in the Permian—the most prolific play in the U.S. shale patch and the focus of much industry attention—amid higher prices.

Both supermajors said at the release of their 2021 results they had plans for double-digit growth in Permian oil output, with Exxon eyeing an increase of as much as 25 percent and Chevron seeking to raise Permian production by 10 percent this year.

Bloomberg commented that these plans indicate the U.S. shale industry is back into growth mode. In a separate report, Bloomberg wrote that shale oil production this year was going to add 1 million bpd, according to a forecast by data analysis provider Lium.

“Field level datapoints in recent weeks have highlighted a surge in frac activity, which we believe will translate into a production inflection by mid-year,” Lium wrote in a research note last week. “The industry is finding (and we think will continue to find) a way to put plenty of service activity into the field.”

This may well be the case for this year, but over the longer term, things may look different based on the Wall Street Journal’s data review. Pioneer, after the acquisition of Parsley Energy and DoublePoint Energy, has drilling inventory for another 15 to 20 years, according to CEO Sheffield. Sheffield warned fellow drillers that ramping up production by a lot would bring a quicker end to these inventories. Related: Low Cushing Inventories Could Lead To Higher Oil Prices

Data from another analytics firm, Flow, that the WSJ’ Eaton cited in the analysis suggests that five of the biggest shale patch players, including Marathon Oil, Devon Energy, and EOG Resources, have about ten years or a bit more of profitable well sites left. And that’s the big players. For smaller companies, inventory would probably run out sooner.

A few years ago, oil expert Art Berman warned that drillers in the Permian were running out of sweet spots. The WSJ again reported three years ago that many wells were underperforming, putting lenders on edge as their clients’ projections for well output failed to materialize consistently. The new report suggests things have not changed all that much, but there was a way to make the oil last longer: boost production more slowly.

While this is a straightforward approach, perhaps not all would be able to stick to it, with some opting instead to make the best of high prices while they last. But here is the thing. If the data about drilling inventory and Scott Sheffield are right, higher prices will last longer because of what effectively amounts to limited—and falling—production capacity in the shale patch.

Just a few years ago considered the biggest threat to OPEC’s global dominance, now the shale patch appears to be in a situation similar to that of many OPEC members: drillers might want to drill more, but there is only so much they can actually drill before it becomes prohibitively expensive.


Short-term forecasts remain upbeat, not just from data analytics providers but from the EIA as well. It is the long term that might need to be paid a bit more attention, not just in the shale patch. Underinvestment within OPEC and the nature of shale oil extraction might combine to play a really bad joke on the world before we have managed—if we ever do manage—to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Lee James on February 08 2022 said:
    It could be that what is next in energy, is learning to live with less energy. Energy on all fronts is kind of sobering.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on February 08 2022 said:
    Since the end of 2020 we have been hearing about a comeback of US shale oil production to almost pre-pandemic levels but nothing has materialized. We have also been hearing about a rise in oil rig numbers and rising productivity in the Permian region but they are yet to translate into a noticeable production rise.

    A simple calculation will show that shale oil production in 2022 won’t rise by more than 200,000-300,000 barrels a day (b/d) above 2021 average.

    According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), crude production in the Permian shale plays averaged 4.92 million barrels a day (mbd) in December 2021 and was set to increase to 5.076 mbd in February 2022, a rise of 156,000 b/d. And since the Permian accounts for 60%-65% of total shale production, extrapolating the February figure to full production in 2022 we find that production increase in 2022 could range from 240,000-260,000 b/d giving a total US production of 11.24-11.26 mbd in 2022.

    Putting aside the continuous hype by the EIA, the IEA and Rystad Energy, a shale oil comeback is an illusion. One reason is that the sweet spots in the shale plays have already been used so drillers are now moving to less productive plays. Another reason is that well productivity has been declining. To this could be added the lack of access to capital by the shale drillers as before because investors are interested in a healthy return on their investments rather than a reckless and unprofitable production.

    The fact that shale drillers are sticking to production discipline isn’t due only to capital discipline but also to inability to raise their production beyond 200,000-300,000 barrels a day (b/d). After all, a leopard never changes its spots.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Joa Falken on February 08 2022 said:
    Sure we will "wean ourselves off fossil fuels".

    The only questions are,
    (1) will we build up replacement energy in time, which also requires to invest some energy (e.g. to produce steel for wind turbines and glass and silicon for solar modules), and
    (2) will we destroy our known climate before we have to "wean off" anyhow, or do we ramp up renewables some years earlier, for the same ultimate expenses for renewables, but with the benefit of less expenses for carbon fuel extraction before and also avoided climate risks.

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