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Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has also appeared in The Christian Science…

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Saudi Arabia’s War On Shale Never Ended

Saudi Arabia

Last week, when Saudi Arabia let it leak that the kingdom has no intention of leading OPEC toward another cut in production to accommodate the growing volumes of oil from American shale deposits, it was another sign that the Saudi war on shale actually never ended.

To properly understand this announcement, we need to return to last fall. Most people believed then that the cuts agreed to by OPEC under Saudi leadership marked the end of Saudi Arabia's war on shale oil in America. At the time I cautioned against such a conclusion, and said I was doubtful that there would actually be any decline in world oil production because the Saudis didn't really want a decline.

And, guess what? The OPEC cuts have yet to be fully implemented and have been offset by rising production elsewhere. Furthermore, the Saudis are now complaining that the Russians who, though not part of OPEC, agreed to cuts to support prices, are not keeping their end of the bargain. The Saudis are practicing a marvelous bit of misdirection to keep any blame away from themselves. With the Saudis, it's always necessary to look at the entire game board in order to understand their moves.

So, why are the Saudis content to allow oil prices to remain this low and possibly drift lower? I believe it's because their war on shale never ended; they mean to destroy the long-term financial viability of oil from shale deposits--and that job won't be finished until investors say, "Never again!" Related: Can Oil Supply Keep Up With Surging Demand?

Apparently, investors in American shale deposits have very short memories, or they have not had enough punishment. They continue to pour money into the Permian Basin located in Texas and New Mexico. The Permian is likely to be the only U.S. shale oil deposit that will see growth in oil production this year as low prices continue to take their toll on other shale plays such as the Bakken in North Dakota.

But there are only so many profitable sites in the Permian, and with the continuing rush of capital into the area, the good ones will start to run short at some point. We'll only know that's happened when the second great wave of wealth destruction in the shale fields begins as I suspect it will in the not-to-distant future.

And don't be surprised if the Saudis are content to let oil prices drop into the $20 range again just to get their point across.

As the next round of capital destruction begins, be prepared for stories about how dramatic efficiency gains in drilling operations are making it possible to bank profits in the Permian at an oil price of $40 per barrel. Then watch the same story repeat for $30 per barrel. Related: Why Is Big Oil Backing The Paris Climate Agreement?

The last time we saw this movie there were dubious claims that oil in the higher-cost Bakken could be extracted profitably even with prices at $30 per barrel. As prices have stabilized around $50 per barrel, Bakken production has continued to decline. In part this has been because realized prices have been much lower due to lack of pipeline capacity. This has meant most Bakken oil must be shipped by rail tank car which is expensive.

Maybe this time investors will finally feel the pain from their shale investments so profoundly that even a subsequent substantial rise in the price of oil won't lure many of them back. If so, the Saudis will finally achieve their goal, and the war on shale will end.


By Kurt Cobb via Resource Insights

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  • Just a guy on March 14 2017 said:
    My honest opinion at this point in time is that everyone in the industry (and interested in investing), should have already concluded that shale is and will be a part of the game in the future, no matter the price. If there is a buck to be made, shale will always be an option. Wishful thinking about future investment decisions is nothing but wishful thinking...

    That said, i think the industry is really doing a great job in killing itself over this war price.
    If the old gurus are starting more and more to leave the industry, what to say about young people just starting their careers looking at virtually no chances of getting a job when facing this crisis, fueled by this hopeless market share dispute.

    A young guy looks at this fight and asks the same questions not for today, but for 10/20 years in the future. Are you really telling everyone that investor burn is what will save the industry when price gets steadily to a profitable price (tomorrow, in 1 year, 5, 10, whatever)?

    Please once and for all just acknowledge at the obvious, and by saying that, i'm addressing everyone... If price is around 30 to 40$, shale is produced. If the industry standard is going to be short boosts of price to the 50/60$, staying there for a time and then dropping back down to 40 or even 30 when an IEA report says nasty things about whatever, then sure enough, shale will accommodate yet again to the new reality. In the meanwhile, if things are kept running like we are living bad times and waiting for everything to be back to the business as usual, it is my strong conviction that very few people reading this article today will be in the industry in the next decade.

    I think it's more or less obvious by now that i am a young professional. I keep being told by the "old" guys that this is just another cycle... I have a hard time believing this. This is not "just a cycle", this is the setting of a new price that is coming here to stay. It's something fundamentally different from other previous cycles. Technology has fundamentally changed! This is the key point. I know the financial people also have to make a living writing their articles and opinions, but the fact there is a market share in dispute to be talked about is merely the end result of a critical technological breakthrough in the industry. If people really understood what this means, half of the stuff that is written and that further elude everyone interested in a knowledgeable debate, wouldn't come to fruition.

    Just my 2 cents...
  • Seth on March 14 2017 said:
    "Saudi Arabia’s War On Shale Never Ended"

    The Saudis are like the "Black Knight" in 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail,' claiming it's "just a flesh wound" as he gets dismembered.
  • Equivocation on March 14 2017 said:
    Absolutely correct. Saudi's are the lowest cost producer. They can at any time bring down the cost of oil to production cost. They control the volatility of pricing. Volatility equals risk to investors. What Saudi's are doing is reminding investors that there is quite a bit of risk. The goal is that shale projects will need to provide higher yields to attract investors.
  • cowboybob on March 14 2017 said:
    My 2 cents is that reality is somewhere buried in the gray murk of all this. Market price per barrel is certainly key, but it does not seem all that cut and dried. If shale producers figure out ways to sink holes at reasonable costs from time to time and then sit on them in some stage of completion knowing the $/barrel to complete and pump (working of course within the regulations and/or lease hold reqts for completion), then there will always be product more or less "online" waiting for optimum price to sell like tankering in ships...storage in the ground so to speak.

    Sure there is a threshold of pain, but if it was easy....well you know the rest. It's hard to believe that there isn't someone out there who has a plan to play the markets in such a fashion maybe even hedging with futures when the price is right like agriculture does. Seems reasonable to me that someone can figure this out. Racing around drilling and spending while prices are high and then hoping it all works out seems to be relegated to the trash heap at this point in history...it's a new oil world these days, but I suspect with plenty of opportunity.
  • Oilracle on March 19 2017 said:
    ----Maybe this time investors will finally feel the pain from their shale investments so profoundly ----

    No, no, no! The profound pain should, and perhaps will, be on the Middle East side investors when they reimburse 6 trillion dollars for the US wars over there!

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