Long-suffering Americans grappling with runaway inflation are finally enjoying some reprieve. After a relentless climb, prices at the pump have been heading south, with national average gas prices tumbling to a 10-week low of $3.28 a gallon, according to AAA. Fuel prices started leveling out after President Joe Biden announced on November 23 the biggest-ever release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, though experts have dismissed it as a mere band-aid. Whereas many people have placed the blame for high gas prices on the Biden administration, the real culprit has more to do with Wall Street than Pennsylvania Avenue.
The genesis of today's high gas prices can be traced back to financial pressure on oil companies from a decade of devastating losses and poor shareholder returns that have forced them to dramatically alter their business models. For years, Wall Street has pressured oil and gas companies to cut capex, and shift their cash to financial goals like boosting dividends and buybacks, paying down debt, as well as decarbonization, after the fracking revolution left the U.S. shale patch bleeding cash and deeply indebted.
Consequently, investment in new wells has crashed 60% since its peak in 2014, causing U.S. crude oil production to plummet by more than 3 million barrels a day, or nearly 25%, just as the Covid virus hit, and then failed to recover with the economy.
With Wall Street breathing down its neck, U.S. shale is literally running on empty: according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's latest Drilling Productivity Report, the United States had 5,957 drilled but uncompleted wells (DUCs) in July 2021, the lowest for any month since November 2017 from nearly 8,900 at its 2019 peak. At this rate, shale producers will have to sharply ramp up the drilling of new wells just to maintain the current production clip.
The EIA says the sharp decline in DUCs in most major U.S. onshore oil-producing regions reflects more well completions and, at the same time, less new well drilling activity--proof that shale producers have been sticking to their pledge to drill less. Whereas the higher completion rate of more wells has been increasing oil production, especially in the Permian region, the completions have sharply lowered DUC inventories, which could sharply limit oil production growth in the United States in the coming months.
The two main stages in bringing a horizontally drilled, hydraulically fractured well online are drilling and completion. The drilling phase involves dispatching a drilling rig and crew, who then drill one or more wells on a pad site. The next phase, well completion, is typically performed by a separate crew and involves casing, cementing, perforating, and hydraulically fracturing the well for production. In general, the time between the drilling and completion stages is several months, leading to a significant inventory of DUCs that producers can maintain as working inventory to manage oil production.
According to S&P Capital IQ data, 27 major oil makers tripled capital spending between 2004 and 2014 to $294 billion and then cut it to $111 billion by last year. Once old wells were capped, new ones haven't been available to fill the production gap quickly. The question is how long the restraint by publicly traded oil companies will last. Capital spending is expected to clock in around $135 billion next year, good for a 21.6% Y/Y jump but still less than half 2014's level.
Other than severely limiting new drilling activity, U.S. shale has also been keeping its pledge to return more cash to shareholders in the form of dividends and share buybacks.
A recent report by progressive advocacy group Accountable.us says that 16 of 24 large U.S. energy companies have raised their dividends this year, while 11 made special dividend payouts totaling more than $36.5 billion. That's a pretty impressive payout ratio considering that the sector has so far reported $174 billion in profits this year. Indeed, "variable dividends" that allow companies to hike dividends when times are good and to lower them when the going gets tough has become a favorite tool for oil and gas companies.
Meanwhile, oil and gas companies have spent a more modest $8 billion in share buybacks, though ExxonMobil ((NYSE:XOM)and Chevron (NYSE:CVX) have pledged to buy back as much as $20 billion of stock in the next two years. The energy sector has made robust share gains in the current year, which could explain the reluctance to spend too much on share repurchases.
The most important reason, however, why oil prices are likely to remain high in the coming year is OPEC discipline:
"You have a cartel that is traditionally as disciplined as Charlie Sheen's drinking, and for the last year, they've been as disciplined as Olympic gymnasts," Tom Kloza, president of Oil Price Information Service, has hilariously told CNBC.
According to the IEA, crude consumption is expected to improve to 99.53 million barrels per day (bpd), up from 96.2 million bpd this year, leaving it just a hair short of 2019's daily consumption of 99.55 million barrels. That will, of course, depend on the world bringing the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 quickly under control.
Higher oil demand will put pressure on both OPEC and the U.S. shale industry to meet demand. But let's not forget that numerous OPEC nations have already been struggling to add to output, while the U.S. shale industry has to deal with investor demands to hold the line on spending. So far, the U.S. shale industry has not responded to higher oil prices as they had done previously, with overall U.S. production averaged 11.2 million bpd in 2021 compared with a record of nearly 13 million bpd in late 2019. U.S. production is expected to only increase by 700,000 b/d in 2022 to 11.9 b/d, according to Rystad Energy's senior vice-president of analysis, Claudio Galimberti.
Canada, Norway, Guyana, and Brazil could try to bridge the supply-demand gap, but several Wall Street punters are betting it will not be enough and oil prices will remain elevated.
In fact, Barclays has predicted that the WTI contract price will increase from the current rate of $73 to an average price of $77 in 2022, noting that the Biden administration's sale of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve isn't a sustainable way to bring down prices. Barclays says prices could go even higher than that forecast if COVID-19 outbreaks are minimized and thus allow demand to grow more than expected.
Goldman Sachs shares that bullish outlook and has predicted a Brent price of $85 per barrel by 2023 compared to the current $76.30.
By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com
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