The ‘Unknown Unknowns’ That Threaten U.S. Shale
Three years after the oil price crash, the U.S. shale patch is on its second growth phase and is expected to continue to increase its production, at least through the next five years.
The global oil markets have become increasingly dependent on U.S. tight oil supply – and the oil industry is still coming to grips with this new reality, Simon Flowers, Chairman and Chief Analyst at Wood Mackenzie, wrote in a recent article.
Current projections put the Permian on the forefront of the United States’ ability to deliver increased tight oil supply to the global markets. However, forecasts for the shale patch are as dynamic as production and drilling rates are. And some ‘known unknowns’ have been surfacing such as higher gas-to-oil ratios in some wells, and the parent/child wells issue, Flowers says.
Wood Mackenzie said last month that signs had started to show that intensified drilling in the Permian doesn’t deliver commensurate volumes of oil. Although WoodMac thinks that such setbacks could just be growing pains and Permian drillers could indeed ‘change the laws of physics’, it had warned three months ago that drillers might soon start to test the region’s geological limits. If exploration and production companies can’t overcome the geological constraints with tech breakthroughs, Permian production could peak in 2021, putting more than 1.5 million bpd of future production in question and potentially significantly influencing oil prices, WoodMac said in September.
In his December article, WoodMac’s Flowers included this observation in the Permian’s ‘known unknowns’:
“Growth might also be constrained by shareholders demanding that independents rein back from volume-driven targets.”
Those ‘known unknowns’ serve as a warning: the oil market can’t be complacent and just assume that the Permian boom will deliver as expected, according to Flowers. The Wolfcamp may be the star of the Permian, WoodMac says, but “there are more than likely ‘unknown unknowns’ out there too. And if there are, there’s not another Permian ready to step in; and conventional options will take time to crank into action.”
The Eagle Ford and the Bakken combined represent nearly half of the current U.S. tight oil production, according to Wood Mackenzie, which is expressing new doubts that those two plays could offer long-term commercial drilling inventory as operators move out beyond the sweet spots. Therefore, the analysts downgraded the growth rates for both plays from the mid-2020s, but have significantly upgraded the Permian growth pace, especially for the Wolfcamp basin.
If the Permian turns out to have ‘unknown unknowns’ alongside the ‘known unknowns’, the U.S. shale patch may not deliver as expected.
Currently, WoodMac’s supply/demand balance forecasts show that the U.S. and OPEC will “do battle for contestable demand that will climb to over 5 million b/d by 2024.”
The analysts believe that U.S. shale will take the lion’s share of that demand—90 percent—as its production will double to 9.6 million bpd by 2024 from 4.9 million bpd in 2017, while OPEC will be left with meeting less than 1 million bpd of that additional demand.
Three years after the oil price crash, the most unexpected outcomes in the global oil market are the second wave of U.S. shale growth, OPEC’s “zealous adherence” to the cuts, and the resilience of some non-OPEC non-U.S. producers, WoodMac says.
While Mexico, China, and Africa as a whole have been “heavy casualties” of the lower-for-longer oil prices, Russia, Canada, and the North Sea have surprised on the positive side by adapting remarkably well to the low oil prices. Russia is the “poster child” of this resilience. Canada is also doing well with Duvernay liquids where breakevens are competitive with U.S. plays, and with better uptime from oil sands projects. The North Sea has also been a positive surprise, with the UK leading the way with aggressive cost cuts that have helped to raise oil production, WoodMac says.
Still, U.S. tight oil, especially the Permian, will be the main growth story over the medium term, but ‘unknown unknowns’ may be lurking out there and could restrain the pace of that growth.