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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Full Scale Oil Price Recovery Unlikely As 5000 DUC’s May Come Online

Bakken well

A backlog of oil wells that have been sitting idle could put renewed pressure on oil prices once the oil starts flowing.

Oil prices dipped just below $50 per barrel this week on several pieces of bad news, including comments from Iraqi officials that cast doubt on the chances of an OPEC deal in November and the rising output from Nigeria.

OPEC successfully sparked an oil price rally last month when it reached a tentative deal Algiers to cut output, but without a solid and meaningful deal in Vienna in November, the group could disappoint the markets. "OPEC appears to be approaching the limits of its ability to jawbone oil higher without something concrete to put on the table," Jeffrey Halley, a senior market analyst at the brokerage firm OANDA, told Reuters in an interview.

Without OPEC rumors to push up crude, oil traders will turn their focus back to the fundamentals, which remain frustratingly stuck in a sort of limbo. The global supply surplus is not enormous, but big enough to cap oil prices. Inventories are starting to come down, which is evidence of a market moving towards balance, but it is still only proceeding at a snail’s pace. Meanwhile, demand in China continues to slow, a variable that could upend even the most cautious estimates about when the oil market will come into balance.

But another uncertainty is the vast backlog of drilled but uncompleted wells (DUCs) located across the U.S. shale patch. Over the past two years the oil and gas industry drilled thousands of wells that they ultimately decided not to complete, leaving a large pool of oil that is sitting on the sidelines waiting to get into the game. Deferring completion made sense when oil prices were plunging to lows not seen in years – why not wait until oil prices rebound to extract your oil and put it on the market? Related: Could An Intense Winter Fuel The Oil Price Rally?

For much of the past two years during the oil price downturn, the DUCS began building up, but data was scarce. In September, the EIA began publishing figures on DUCs. All told, there are an estimated 5,069 DUCs in the seven major shale regions tracked by the EIA. The Permian and the Eagle Ford have the most, with 1,378 and 1,276 DUCs, respectively.

(Click to enlarge)

The backlog represents a large volume of new supply that has yet to come online, but could begin doing so in the near future. It is typical to have some level of DUCs for a variety of reasons that do not pertain to the collapse in oil prices, but there are currently about 2,000 more than what is normal, according to Wood Mackenzie. If the industry completes all of those wells, they could add roughly 250,000 barrels per day, the consultancy estimates. Related: World Bank Ups Its 2017 Oil Price Forecast To $55

And there is every reason to think that those wells will begin to come online in the near future. Much of the cost of extracting a barrel of oil is concentrated in the drilling process, while completion costs are minor by comparison. As such, whether or not a company made a smart decision to drill a well in a world of $50 oil, the drilling expenses at this point are sunk costs. So completing them is a no brainer. “You’re at a point where pretty much every DUC that’s sitting out there is in the money,” Ryan Duman, a senior analyst at WoodMac, told the Wall Street Journal in an interview. Duman expects the backlog to come down to more normal levels over the next 18 months.

The total DUC tally has basically been climbing since 2013, reaching a peak in January 2016 at 5,576 wells. The backlog hovered around that level for the entire first quarter – a time when oil prices bounced around in the $20s and $30s per barrel. Only in April when oil prices started to tick up, largely due to major supply outages in Nigeria and Canada, did the DUC backlog start to come down a bit. The industry completed a net of 506 wells between April and September, bringing the total down to 5,069. With oil prices back up to $50 per barrel, surely that figure came down further in October, although data won’t be released from the EIA until mid-November.


The U.S. lost more than 1 million barrels per day between April 2015 and this past summer. However, the EIA’s weekly estimates between July and October show output remaining largely flat, holding steady between 8.4 and 8.5 mb/d. There are many reasons for that, including companies beginning fresh drilling. But the uptick in completed wells from the DUC backlog is playing a role in halting the declines in U.S. oil production in recent months.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Bud on October 26 2016 said:
    Calling this issue a Red Herring is being kind. First, 20 percent of these wells are gas not oil. Second, the domestic industry is seriously capital constrained, from the smallest to the largest drillers, and the trend is to drill the best acreage with high intensity fracing. This type of intensity is expensive, and fracking completions are most of a wells cost in any case.
    Also, many drillers need to hold and prove acreage, so again they are going to spend their dollars carefully. At least another 20 percent of those older wells may never get completed with oil under 80 bucks.
  • Tilmann on October 27 2016 said:
    "Much of the cost of extracting a barrel of oil is concentrated in the drilling process, while completion costs are minor by comparison."

    That's completly wrong for fracking wells. Drilling is more like 1,x million $, and fracking more like 5 million $.

    Somebody has to take about 25 billion dollars into the hand to frack all these wells - besides the downsizing of the fracking companies in the las 2 years which have to power up again.
  • Phil on October 27 2016 said:
    These DUCs will only provide a short term uptick in production as their production drops off very quickly.

    Also the small fact that they still need to frac these wells at a few $million per well. Hard to justify the costs with such a low return.

    Lastly, the industry can only frac so many wells at a time due to all of the layoffs.

    It's not like they can flip a switch and these 5000 wells will start producing. It's a few wells at a time, spread out over a longer period of time.

    These wells will not change the market at all.
  • don on October 27 2016 said:
    The unknown here is the quality of these wells. Is the quality good enough to overcome the decline in producing wells? Core Labs reported had their quarterly earnings call the other day and they had a statistic for the Bakken this year. In the Bakken oil companies have completed 1700 wells this year on a producing basis of 8000 wells. During this time production has decreased 254,000 bpd. Rational exploration…..always drill your best, most profitable areas first.
  • Nick on October 27 2016 said:
    Very probable the US oil industry will be the swing producer and keep a ceiling on oil prices. This may keep the US oil industry under great stress and more losses plus more unemployment.
    I agree that DUCs where the investment are done, must be completed and start production, however to keep the production from unconventional oil and gas more drilling are required. The government must subsidize the oil industry to reduce the losses, becouse the low oil and gas prices do not produce reasonable cash flow to keep drilling.
  • Guy Minton on October 27 2016 said:
    I used to think this guy knew something about oil. However, when he makes the statement most of the cost of the well is in drilling, and a small fraction is in completing; then he has less than minimal knowledge in horizontal drilling. Consequently, commenting about DUCs is way out there.

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