Shale Oil Boom Could End in May After Price Collapse

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U.S. Crude Oil Production About to Ramp Up

The shale oil boom that pushed U.S. crude production to the highest level in four decades is grinding to a halt.

Output from the prolific tight-rock formations such as North Dakota’s Bakken shale will decline 57,000 barrels a day in May, the Energy Information Administration said Monday. It’s the first time the agency has forecast a drop in output since it began issuing a monthly drilling productivity report in 2013.

Deutsche Bank AG, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and IHS Inc. have projected that U.S. oil production growth will end, at least temporarily, with futures near a six-year low. Some shale producers including ConocoPhillips and EOG Resources Inc. had predicted output would begin declining before the end of the year as aggressive industry cutbacks take effect. The plunge in prices has already forced half the country’s drilling rigs offline and wiped out thousands of jobs.

“We’re going off an inevitable cliff” because of the shrinking rig counts, Carl Larry, head of oil and gas for Frost & Sullivan LP, said by phone from Houston on Monday. “The question is how fast is the decline going to go. If it’s fast, if it’s steep, there could be a big jump in the market.”

West Texas Intermediate crude for May delivery climbed $1.41 to $53.18 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange at 11:08 a.m. in New York. Prices are down 50 percent from a year ago.

‘Supply Response’

In February, EOG Resources Inc., the largest U.S. shale producer, predicted U.S. production would fall by the end of the year. EOG said the crude market would rebound quickly and labeled the current downturn a “short cycle.” The Texas producer said its own production would bottom in the second and third quarter, resulting in output roughly even with last year.

ConocoPhillips Chief Executive Officer Ryan Lance said last week he sees U.S. production falling in the second half of the year, helping boost prices in the next three years as high as $80.

“There is a supply response happening. You don’t see it in the first half of the year because of the investments that we made over the last two years,” he said in an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York. “The reductions in capital that the industry has made are substantial. That’s going to start to materialize in the back half of this year.”

Well Backlog

The decline in domestic production will come just as U.S. refineries start processing more oil following seasonal maintenance, easing the biggest glut since 1930. The withdrawal from U.S. oil stockpiles is expected to bring relief to a market that’s seen prices drop by more than $50 a barrel since June.

The relief may prove temporary as U.S. drillers are building a backlog of drilled wells that they plan to hydraulically fracture and place into service as soon as prices rebound. Analysts including Wood Mackenzie Ltd. have estimated that the inventory has grown to more than 3,000 uncompleted wells.

“U.S. production can return quickly with any price recovery,” Adam Longson, an analyst at Morgan Stanley in New York, said in an April 13 research note. “A backlog of uncompleted wells, falling service costs, hedging opportunities and plenty of capital on the sidelines should all support investment, perhaps more than the market expects.”

The EIA’s May production forecasts cover the yield from major plays that together accounted for 90 percent of domestic output growth from 2011 to 2012.

Regional Output

Output from the Eagle Ford in Texas, the second-largest oil field in the U.S., is expected to fall 33,000 barrels a day in May to 1.69 million. Production in the Bakken region of North Dakota will decline 23,000 to 1.3 million, the EIA said.

Yield from the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico, the largest U.S. oil field, will continue to rise, by 11,000 barrels a day to 1.99 million.

The EIA’s oil-production estimates are based on the number of rigs drilling in each play and estimates on how productive they are. The numbers of oil rigs in service across the country slid 42 last week to 760, the fewest since December 2010, Houston-based field services company Baker Hughes Inc. said.

‘Full Swing’

Deutsche Bank forecast in a research note last week that production in May will mark “an important inflection point for the U.S. oil market.”

Advances in oil-drilling technologies are no longer enough to offset the rigs being idled by U.S. producers, Paul Horsnell, global head of commodities research at Standard Chartered Plc in London, said in an April 13 research note. Shale production is probably already falling, with total U.S. output set to shrink by 70,000 barrels a day from May to June, he said.

“The deceleration in U.S. output has been greater than the market is currently pricing in,” Horsnell said in the report. “Global rebalancing is in full swing.”

(An earlier version of this story corrected the spelling of Deutsche Bank in the third paragraph.)

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