From the end of 2010 to the first half of this year, as the rapid development of light tight oil (LTO) from shale deposits was adding more than 2.9 million barrels per day (bpd) to US output, the benchmark price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil (WTI) averaged $96/bbl. The global oil price, represented by UK Brent, averaged $110/bbl for the same period. Having now fallen to the $80s, if prices were to stay here or lower for long, we should expect to learn a great deal about the actual cost structure of new and existing LTO production in the Bakken, Eagle Ford, Permian Basin and other shale plays.
Based on my experience of several oil-price declines from the inside during my career at Texaco, Inc., I'm skeptical that many LTO producers would be inclined to trim output from currently producing wells, other than as a last resort. From late 1997 to the end of '98, WTI prices fell by almost half, from around $20/bbl to under $11--equivalent to roughly $15 today. Prices for heavier grades of oil fell to single digits. After months of that, revenues from some oil fields no longer covered variable costs, and upstream management took the decision to shut in high-cost production. Once prices revived, they discovered that some of that capacity had been lost essentially permanently.
I suspect there would be even greater uncertainty and hesitation today about shutting in producing shale wells for any significant period, especially in light of the limited experience with such wells. The bigger question is whether the drilling of new wells would slow or stop, resulting in a gradual slide in output as existing wells decline.
Then and presumably now, however, the first option in a situation like this is generally to cut costs, rather than output. I saw this in the mid-1980s, when oil prices fell by nearly 60% and took more than a decade to recover fully, then again in the late '90s, and during periodic, smaller market corrections. Suppliers were squeezed, big projects deferred, and employees saw travel, raises and benefits curtailed. Similar actions now could make a difference in keeping new shale drilling going.
Even for relatively efficient operators, it can be surprising how much expense can be reduced without affecting near-term productivity, and many of those savings would persist if prices recovered. LTO producers might ultimately become more profitable after weathering a period of weak prices.
A heightened focus on costs would also likely extend beyond producing company budgets and supplier agreements. One of the biggest non-production costs for LTO is transportation, whether paid directly by the producer or deducted by the purchaser from the market price. Because of its rapid growth and the constraints of existing infrastructure, a high proportion of LTO output must currently be shipped by rail--up to one million bpd in the second quarter of 2014.
Rail offers flexibility and can reach many destinations, but it is expensive. For example, if it costs over $10/bbl to ship Bakken crude to the Gulf Coast by rail, that means that with WTI at $82/bbl the producer might realize only a little over $70/bbl at the wellhead. Pipelines are often cheaper to use, though not in all cases. The current tariff on the existing Keystone Pipeline for taking oil from the Canadian border to Cushing, OK, the storage hub for WTI, works out to around $4/bbl. If oil prices stayed low for a while, it might increase interest in the proposed Bakken Marketlink Project, which would connect the Bakken shale operations to the much-delayed Keystone XL pipeline.
Another aspect of transportation costs that could come under a different kind of pressure relates to federal restrictions on shipping oil and petroleum products by vessel between US ports. Under the "Jones Act", only US-flagged, -owned and -crewed ships can perform such deliveries, even though the rates for such shipments are normally significantly higher than on foreign-flag tankers in comparable service. This is a significant factor in current petroleum trade patterns, in which refined products from Gulf Coast refineries are often shipped halfway around the world, while blenders and marketers on the east and west coasts must import gasoline and other products from outside North America.
And as long as US crude oil exports are prohibited, with a few exceptions, the combination of the Jones Act and the export ban effectively keep LTO bottled up on the Gulf Coast--depressing its price--or force it onto rail. Amending the Jones Act to exempt LTO, or the issuance of a waiver to that effect from the Executive Branch, could increase producers' margins while expanding the supply options for US refineries on the other coasts.
Based on the current behavior of oil markets, the global impact of the US shale oil boom has been greater than many expected and seems very much in the national interest of the US--and of US consumers--to keep it going. It remains to be seen whether measures such as new pipeline infrastructure and reform of shipping regulations, together with more traditional forms of expense reduction, could boost producers' returns on LTO sufficiently to sustain drilling at roughly current rates when oil prices are weak.
Even if both drilling and tight oil production slowed for a while, this price correction won't spell the end of the shale boom. As Monday's Heard on the Street column in the Wall Street Journal put it, "Once someone has cracked it, it can't be unlearned. Barring a prolonged period of very low prices, the US oil industry isn't about to disintegrate." Rather than an existential crisis, the current weakness in oil markets looks like a test of adaptability for this new but important energy sector.