The EIA’s newly released Short Term Energy Outlook is making headlines this week. The agency is forecasting higher U.S. oil production growth in 2018 and 2019. Specifically, the EIA forecasts U.S. oil production to average 10.3 million bpd in 2018 (an increase of 1 million bpd from 2017) and 10.8 million bpd in 2019. This is an upward revision from previous forecasts.
The EIA expects the majority of this growth to come from “tight rock” (shale) regions in the Permian and in New Mexico. A lower amount is expected to come from the Gulf of Mexico. These growth predictions are even fueling speculation that OPEC may decide to end its production cuts sooner rather than later in order to scuttle this American growth.
There is reason, however, to be skeptical of these growth forecasts. Much of the skepticism was explained in a discussion I recently had with geologist Art Berman as part of a podcast that I cohost with Ryan Ray of Global Energy Media. Berman is a 40-year industry veteran who looks at the fracking industry with a critical eye.
One of the key issues that could impact U.S. fracking growth is the size of the reserves in various shale plays. Based on recent information submitted to the SEC by companies with holdings in the Permian, Eagle Ford and Bakken regions, Berman estimates that the Permian Basin—currently the “hottest” of the plays—may only contain 3.8 billion barrels of oil. Nearby Eagle Ford and the Bakken region in North Dakota might contain about 5 billion barrels each.
This might seem like a large amount, but compared to projects that have recently come online in other parts of the world, it is fairly minimal. For example, Kazakhstan’s Kashagan project, which recently started production, is estimated to hold about 35 billion barrels. One of Brazil’s offshore subsalt areas is estimated to hold between 8 and 12 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Berman warns against using current growth trends to extrapolate into the far future when looking at areas like the Permian, Eagle Ford and Bakken. He says the reserve numbers are questionable and the recoverable oil may be even less than expected.
Continued growth also depends on the financial situation of the companies that make up the shale oil industry. Berman cautions those looking at the situation to be wary of the much-touted “break even” price. According to his assessment of the non-major companies involved in shale oil production, fewer than 5 can afford to fund their operations with their projected cash flow. This means that the majority of companies still need a constant influx of capital from investors to continue production.
In addition, shale operations are not obtaining the same high prices for their crude that we see on the exchanges. Companies rarely sell their oil for the price of WTI that traders see on the NYMEX. In the Bakken region, for example, companies must sell their oil at a $5.50 or $6.00 discount per barrel. This is due to the remoteness of the region and the difficulty of transporting Bakken oil to refineries or export hubs. This means that when WTI is trading at $63 per barrel, oil companies in the Bakken are selling their oil for only $57 per barrel, or less.
When oil prices dropped in 2015, there was a great deal of excitement about the use of new technology by fracking companies to cut costs and continue production at lower margins. Berman argues that technology and other cost-cutting measures taken by companies only accounted for about 10% of the decline in cost of production. He said that about 90% of the drop in production costs actually came from an overall depression in the industry that caused vendors—from equipment suppliers to oil services companies—to cut their prices. Therefore, as the price of oil rises, so too do the costs associated with production, making it even more difficult for these companies to breakeven, let alone profit.
Berman is not the only one raising flags about the shale oil industry. Some recent reports in the Wall Street Journal, FUSE and Forbes have called into question the profitability and growth rate potential for shale oil companies. Berman says that he looks at the fracking industry with a skeptical eye but that he is not a detractor. Rather, he cautions against accepting forecasts of higher and higher growth from this industry at face value.
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