Shale Producers Say Bring it On in Oil Price Showdown

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Drilling For Oil in The Eagle Ford Shale
A floor hand signals to the driller to pull the pipe from the mouse hole on Orion Drilling Co.'s Perseus drilling rig near Encinal in Webb County, Texas. In the three geologic formations that account for 88 percent of U.S. shale oil output -- North Dakota’s Bakken and the Eagle Ford and Permian in Texas -- explorers can drill new wells profitably even if crude falls to $25 a barrel, according to a team of analysts led by Manuj Nikhanj at ITG Investment Research Inc. Photographer: Eddie Seal/Bloomberg

OPEC’s price war against the American shale industry will erode drilling budgets, shrink profits and even bankrupt some companies. It won’t do the one thing cartel leader Saudi Arabia wants: reduce U.S. production.

In the three geologic formations that account for 88 percent of U.S. shale oil output -- North Dakota’s Bakken and the Eagle Ford and Permian in Texas -- explorers can drill new wells profitably in some areas even if crude falls to $25 a barrel, according to a team of analysts led by Manuj Nikhanj at ITG Investment Research Inc. That’s less than half yesterday’s $67.38 closing price for U.S. crude.

The basins most vulnerable to the ravages of a price war are those with lower-producing wells such as the Eaglebine in east Texas and Denver-Julesburg in Colorado. Their higher costs and middling output mean explorers operating there require average prices of $75 to $84 a barrel to make new drilling worthwhile.

While a map of winning and losing shale regions can be drawn from Canada to Louisiana, the bottom line is that the most prolific fields will keep production churning where it counts the most. Oil companies can be counted on to more aggressively concentrate on these “lower risk fields that are a lot cheaper to drill and faster to cash,” said Troy Eckard, chief executive officer at Eckard Global LLC, a Dallas-based investor in more than 260 Bakken shale wells.

Market Tailspin

Oil markets have been in a tailspin since June as weakening growth in global demand met surging production in North America to deflate prices 28 percent. In refusing to cut output when its 12 member countries met on Nov. 27, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries is trying to force the U.S. shale industry to bear the brunt of a market rebalancing by pressuring it to pullback on drilling.

“We are entering a period of extreme volatility in oil because the Central Bank of Oil just resigned its position,” Paul Sankey, an analyst at Wolfe Research LLC and former International Energy Agency researcher, said in a note to clients. OPEC’s inaction in the face of tumbling prices means “the notoriously boom-bust” U.S. energy industry becomes “the price setter for global oil prices.”

Oil futures in New York fell as much as 60 cents to $66.78 a barrel today.

The question becomes what kind of staying power the shale producers can muster, and whether OPEC -- particularly its weaker members who already favor a production cut -- can hold out as long.

Bullseye Focus

It would take a 50 percent reduction in capital budgets across the industry to halt enough drilling activity for shale output to begin declining, Mark Hanson, an analyst at Morningstar in Chicago, said in an interview. That probably won’t happen unless crude prices continue dropping and stay deflated for an extended period, he said.

“When prices collapse, you concentrate on your best stuff,” Hanson said. Companies will “focus on the bullseye.”

U.S. producers have had years to hone techniques that lower costs and increase output, making major cutbacks less likely than ever. Although the average profitability threshholds in the Big 3 shale zones are about $65 a barrel, some wells can make money at $25, ITG’s Nikhanj said.

And shale is not the whole U.S. story. While it represents the fastest growing new source of oil, 54 percent of U.S. domestic output comes from places such as Alaska and the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, as well as older wells in the continental states that have been pumping crude through ups and downs for decades.

Cash Squeeze

Shale explorers have seen their market value fall by more than $150 billion since June as investors worried about disappearing cash flow and whether companies that borrowed heavily to amass drilling acreage, hire crews and lease rigs can survive lower oil prices.

Some drillers have relied on debt to buy drilling rights and rent rigs, doubling energy bonds’ share of the high-yield market to 17 percent since 2008, according to an Oct. 14 report by Citigroup Inc. The $90 billion of debt issued by junk-rated energy producers in the past three years has fallen 13 percent since the crude rout began in June.

Because the amount that drillers can borrow from bank lenders is tied to the value of their reserves, falling prices increase the risk they’ll face a cash squeeze, according to an Oct. 9 report by Spencer Cutter, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence in Skillman, New Jersey.

The extra yield investors demand to hold the bonds of energy companies instead of comparable U.S. Treasury securities has more than doubled since June, Bloomberg data show.

‘Nice Cleansing’

Minor shakeouts are a regular occurrence in the oil business when bull runs end. “Low prices are really doing us a favor,” Eckard said. “This will get rid of all the weak players, all the fat, and we’re going to have a nice cleansing in the industry.”

In the meantime, shale explorers are charging ahead with plans to boost production in 2015, albeit with tightened belts and a narrower focus on the richest oil fields in their portfolios. All told, U.S. oil output climbed 7.5 percent since the price rout began on June 20, reaching a record 9.1 million barrels a day in the week ended Nov. 28, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

In the midst of free-falling crude prices, shale specialist EOG Resources Inc. last month lifted its full-year production growth target to 16.5 percent from an earlier forecast of 14 percent. To ensure ample cash for drilling, the Houston-based company already has locked in prices above $90 a barrel for about 10 percent of its 2015 crude output.

Resilient Producers

Shale producers won’t shut oil wells in response to the market’s collapse because most still are profitable, and even those that aren’t need to provide cash flow for debt service and other corporate expenses.

For an example of how resilient U.S. shale production is in the face of lower prices, one need only look to Continental Resources Corp: the creation of billionaire wildcatter Harold Hamm spent about $5.50 to produce each barrel of crude from its Bakken wells after they’re drilled; in the company’s Great Plains discovery known as the South Central Oklahoma Oil Play, or SCOOP, the cost was 99 cents. Those figures reflect full-year 2013 costs published in the 10-K report Continental filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and are the most recent available.

Continental, the biggest holder of drilling rights in the Bakken, last month said 2015 output will grow between 23 percent and 29 percent even after shelving plans to allocate more money to exploration.

350 Wells

The Oklahoma City-based company plans to spend $4.6 billion next year -- unchanged from 2014 levels -- to drill 350 new wells across North Dakota and Oklahoma. That budget is 12 percent less than the $5.2 billion Continental had previously signaled it would spend in 2015.

In North Dakota’s Bakken, where the 1.2 million barrels of daily output exceeds that of Indonesia or Oman, drillers will soon begin shifting rigs from high-cost, low-profit fields in the northern counties of Burke and Divide to richer geologic formations known as the Nesson Anticline and the West Williston Basin, said Gabriele Sorbara, an analyst at Topeka Capital Markets in New York.

The Nesson Anticline and West Williston are homes to fields with names like Sanish and Parshall that have “the best wells” in the entire Bakken, Sorbara said. In addition to Continental and EOG, drillers in the region include Oasis Petroleum Inc. and Hess Corp.

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