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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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Russia’s Plan To Bankrupt U.S. Shale Could Send Oil To $60

Scoop rig

As soon as U.S. shale leaves the market, prices will rebound and could reach $60 a barrel, Rosneft’s Igor Sechin said recently. As fate would have it, in what many would have until recently considered an impossible scenario, a lot of U.S. shale might do just that. Breakeven prices for U.S. shale basins range between $39 and $48 a barrel, according to data compiled by Reuters. Meanwhile, West Texas Intermediate (WIT) is trading below $25 a barrel and has been for over a week now. 

The SCOOP/STACK play in Oklahoma has the highest average breakeven price at $48 a barrel. Surprisingly, the Permian is not the lowest-cost play but the second-lowest, at $40. The lowest-cost basin, on average, is the Delaware Basin, part of the Permian.

On the face of it, these averages give no cause for optimism to an industry hit hard and fast by a perfect storm of radically lower demand and a sharp increase in supply. However, it’s worth noting the figures above are averages. They cover a range of breakeven costs that last year, according to the Dallas Fed, featured breakeven prices of as little as $23 a barrel in the Permian. In all fairness, these figures were reported last year. Since then, the lowest may have gone up or, in some locations, down.

Surviving the crisis seems to be a combination of luck with acreage, Wright’s Law, and size. The problem is that luck eventually runs out as does the oil from fracked wells—faster to start producing than conventional ones and faster to deplete—and that Wright’s Law does not hold to $0. Experience in performing an activity can only go as fast as improving productivity and efficiency.

What about size? 

The bigger the size of a company, the more room it has to cut operating costs (the day-to-day expenses related to running any business). Companies can trim these costs by asking suppliers to lower their prices, which some shale players have already done, asking for a sizeable discount, too--some as much as 25 percent.

Related: Not Even The $2 Trillion Stimulus Package Can Save Oil Markets
This strategy is what happened during the last oil-price crisis, too. At the time, shale producers spoke about efficiency gains and strict cost controls. Nevertheless, most of the relief came from oilfield service providers drastically slashing the price of their products and services so they could survive during the crisis, ensuring in this way the survival of their clients. As a result, the oilfield services segment of the industry suffered longer than E&Ps did.

Efficiency gains aside, breakeven prices have fallen because of lower operating expenses. These now need to be cut further and already are: companies are already curbing business activity; in this case, by idling rigs and drilling fewer wells. This is one of the self-regulating mechanisms of the industry. The fewer new wells drilled, the smaller the production growth until eventually, it evaporates, and production begins to shrink. 

We are likely to see this soon enough.

U.S. shale has been praised for changing the world oil game and for managing to bring their costs low enough to survive the 2014-2016 crisis. Indeed, the industry deserves most of the credit it has received: going from the second-highest production cost level in the world to one of the lowest is undoubtedly an accomplishment deserving praise. 

However, the shale fan club often forgets that there is a floor under operating costs and that there are only so many discounts an E&P can ask from an oilfield service provider. Once those discounts are reached and operating costs reach the max, E&Ps will be on their own. Many of the smaller independents, as well as the large shale players, have little wriggle room in the current supply and demand situation.

Related: Oil Climbs As U.S. Pushes For An End To The Price War

The question that many are asking is whether the shale industry could repeat its feat from the last crisis: squeeze costs lower, retrench, survive, and enjoy lower breakevens and higher profits once the crisis is over. The answer would have been “maybe” had the current crisis been only purely related to excessive supply, like the last one. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The industry is now also struggling with what is increasingly looking like the biggest demand slump in the history of oil.

On top of it all, the space for further reductions in breakeven prices is more limited than it was five years ago. It is a law as universal, perhaps, as Wright’s Law. You cannot innovate indefinitely, and you cannot bring down the breakeven level of a business to zero. What’s more, shale may be facing higher rather than lower breakevens in some parts of the shale patch.


Shale formations are not all made equal. In some parts of a play, the oil is more easily—read cheaply—extractable than in other parts of the same play. Some of these sweet spots, however, will have been exhausted by now, forcing well operators to tap higher-cost locations, a topic that oil industry expert Art Berman has discussed exhaustively.

Thanks to technological advances, there is certainly more room for efficiency improvements in the extraction of oil from shale formations. These efficiency improvements would likely bring breakeven levels across the shale patch even lower. For those that survive the crisis that more and more people are calling unprecedented. 

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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  • Steven Conn on March 29 2020 said:
    However, may I remind that it was Saudi Arabia that, in so many words, stormed out of the last meeting in mid March, and has declared it intention to leave the earlier agreement on production cuts. Moscow did not propose leaving the existing production-cut agreement that has been renewed over and over. If the two can agree to extend this still existing deal, prices could rise to mi 30s, and as US economy follows China in steady recovery from Covid19, by mid summer already we could see oil prices rise modestly again. Russia does not set oil prices or dump oil at below market prices, nor did it, or can it, threaten to add 1 million or more barrels of production.
  • Dan Pearson on March 30 2020 said:
    Serious question here. Will and/or can the massive COVID19 Rescue money be used for the bankrupt frackers? Can they get COVID-19 Rescue money to keep pumping negative FCF shale oil?

    I would love to hear an answer to that question from someone that knows about what restrictions are on the Rescue money. I assume POTUS Trump would say YES in order to keep USA in the lead regarding crude oil production of 13 mmbopd and to save USA jobs, and for national security reasons. Regards.
  • John Collier on March 30 2020 said:
    The Delaware is a sub-basin in the Permian.
  • Mark Baker on March 30 2020 said:
    Hard to take an article like this seriously with this:

    "Surprisingly, the Permian is not the lowest-cost play but the second-lowest, at $40. The lowest-cost basin, on average, is the Delaware Basin, also in Texas."

    I would hope that someone writing articles like this has a better understanding of the Permian Basin, and what it is.
  • Alec Q on March 30 2020 said:
    The US can't compete on oil ??? We heard that before. If an existing US shale company goes bankrupt, oilfields and assets will simply be bought by another entity and start new - without debt, with new technology and more efficient. It's a fallacy that western countries can't do cheap commodities efficiently. Example: New tech electric arc steel mills popping up in the US - taking back the steel industry from foreign exporters. If it can be done with steel, it can be done with oil and shale. The US would not even flinch at this probably permanent oil price depression; because shale is just a tiny fraction of the US economy. But Russia will be decimated because the Russian economy is like a big gas station selling 70% gas, 20% guns, and 10% Vodka. As long as the US economy remains the world's top economy, the US shale industry will never go away. With continued private investments in the US shale industry, it will simply create new tech and innovate their way out the obstacles. Being the biggest economy has its advantages - the US could use energy exports to negotiate to level out trade imbalances with other countries (being done today with China). On the other hand, Saudi and Russia, being highly dependent on oil, could go the way of Venezuela.
  • Mamdouh Salameh on March 30 2020 said:
    Latest estimates indicate that at an oil price of $30-$35 a barrel, US oil production could drop by around 1.5 million barrels a day (mbd). Russian sources suggest that a price ranging from $45-$55 would discourage costly projects and, at the same time, allow demand to grow.

    However, the Igor Sechin the CEO of Russia’s largest oil company Rosneft says as soon as shale oil leaves the market, prices will rebound and could reach $60, a scenario considered impossible until now. However, a lot of US shale might do just that.

    And though Russia and Saudi Arabia currently find themselves on opposite sides vis-à-vis oil policies, both agree on eliminating shale oil from the market as a key to pushing oil prices up.

    And with a breakeven price ranging from $48-$68 barrel and a well depletion rate of 70%-90% after first year production, the overwhelming majority of the shale drillers can’t survive low oil prices let alone a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia.

    Still, President Trump’s administration is under pressure to keep the shale oil industry alive even on a life support machine not only because it is a $7-trillion industry employing more than 2% of the work force and therefore very important for the US economy but also because it enables the United States to have a say in the global oil market along Russia and Saudi Arabia.

    Many ideas are being considered for bailing out the shale industry including an import tax on all foreign crude oil exports to the US. One of these ideas sees the United States imposing a fee on imported oil or products. It engenders setting a floor price of $50 a barrel. So if the oil import price goes down for instance to $30, then an import fee of $20 per barrel would be levied. Likewise, if the import price is $50.00 a barrel or higher, then no fee is paid.

    Calling it a fee doesn’t change the fact that it is a tax or a tariff on oil imports. It is no more than an opportunistic way to fleece the oil-exporting countries and save American tax payers the cost of bailing out the shale industry. However, this won’t work as most major oil exporters could stop exporting oil to the United States to avoid the tax.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Phil Mirzoev on March 30 2020 said:
    Not only Russia, but Russia and Saudi Arabia are going to bankrupt the US shale oil, and most probably they will. Despite the fact that the ever so objective media stuck a label "Oil War between Russia and S Arabia" in reality there is only oil war going on: against US shale because both above parties only win from that.

    As for 60 USD/bbl, well that might well happen.. and it may not stop there because a lot of oil will be erased from the market - not only in the US shale sector - in my modest view. Now, again in my layman's view, "ideal conditions" are shaping up for a future oil crunch.
    It is not only a story about demand, it is a story about supply and which will be hit not only in the US.
  • Bryan Grogan on March 30 2020 said:
    I worked in the oil fields in the late 70's, we drilled maybe 2 dry holes in 2 years moving every 5 days, and I have always said that when the oil runs out we will still have ours here in the USA.
  • Dotard Trump on March 30 2020 said:
    I fail to to see how oil is going to $60 or how the US would leave the market. This is just dumb speculation. Are the Americans going import all of their needs from Saudi Arabia and Russia, not likely.
  • Daniel Barrett on March 30 2020 said:
    Oil price has been punished because of over production and speculation that the world will reduce demand because of Covid-19 lockdown. Price speculation that consumption was going to increase and the seasaw headlines from OPEC pushed prices to their peak in October 2018 and have been declining ever since from over production. No Russians here! If anything the shale oil industry is the author of their own demise with their ramp up in production everytime the price goes up.
    World demand never happened because global recovery was a money printing gamble that never really increased anything except the stockmarkets.
    Oil prices go down, shale oil production cuts back when not profitable. Oil prices go up, shale oil production increases as it is again profitable. It will never go away. Thats just monkey brain thinking.
  • Frank Delmonico on March 30 2020 said:
    Irina Slav, Tsvetana Pereskova and that dude Simon are bunch Of paid pro Kremlin shills. If you notice most of their articles are tilted toward Kremlin, sceptical of shale industry even when frackers were reaping huge profits, and dismissive of Saudi Arabian dominance.
    with regards to this bullshit article if oil shoots up to $60 it will resuscitate shale industry while it passes 40-45 mark. Wtf, is this delusional chick talking about?
    Moreover Russia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund just over one week lost almost 30 billion to maintain their pathetic currency. I bet this price war will bankrupt Kremlin first before anyone else

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