Shale Wells Are Turning Into Cash Gushers

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The profitability of some U.S. shale wells at current prices will almost double as cost cutting and technology turns them into cash gushers despite oil’s crash.

A report by Citigroup Inc. highlights what companies such as EOG Resources Inc. have been saying for months: that belt-tightening across the industry and more strategic drilling in prolific areas would deliver ample profits even at $50 crude.

The improvement is driven by costs that are expected to fall by 20 to 30 percent and techniques that allow rigs to wring 30 percent more oil or natural gas from each well compared with a year ago, according to the Citigroup report on Wednesday. That might bring some surprises when shale producers begin reporting first-quarter financial results over the next two weeks.

While investors are braced for widespread losses, the numbers may not be as bad as some expect, said Richard Morse, the lead author of the study. “Shale producers were hit by low prices in 2014, but they’re hitting back,” he said in the report.

The progress comes at a crucial time for the industry. While the number of drilling rigs has been cut in half and U.S. government forecasters say production in shale formations will fall next month, Saudi Arabia and its OPEC allies have dramatically increased production.

Output from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries rose 890,000 barrels a day to 31.02 million in March, the biggest gain since June 2011, the Paris-based International Energy Agency said Wednesday. Such a production increase could mute the impact on prices of a U.S. pullback.

Shale Shift

ConocoPhillips Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Ryan Lance said last week in an interview at Bloomberg headquarters in New York that the company was shifting its focus to shale over big energy mega-projects, preferring opportunities that offer flexibility amid market fluctuations.

The company can turn a profit on its U.S. and Canadian wells with prices of $50 a barrel or less, according to analyses by consultants ITG Investment Research, Wood Mackenzie Ltd. and Rystad Energy. ConocoPhillips is expected to report profit excluding one-time items of 2 cents a share on April 30, and EOG an adjusted loss of less than 1 cent a share early next month.

Among specific companies, the potential for improvement varies greatly. SM Energy Co., which specializes in Eagle Ford wells, is expected to see costs of $32.52 a barrel. Penn Virginia Corp., which also drills there, still has costs of $135.55 a barrel when debt is factored in. Antero Resources Corp., which drills in Appalachia, has costs of less than $18 a barrel because of the productivity of its wells, according to the report.

Prolific Wells

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s most recent report about the per-well output from shale rigs showed continuing productivity gains. Across the seven major shale-producing regions, oil output from new wells is expected to rise 3 percent in May compared with April. In the Permian basin, the largest producing formation in the U.S., the gain was more than 10 percent, the EIA said.

Such improvements make wells more profitable as more oil or gas is sold from every drilling pad. A year ago, Eagle Ford rigs produced a little more than 500 barrels a day from each well. With prices over $100 a barrel, that represents about $50,000 in revenue per well.

Now, the output in the same formation is almost 750 barrels. With oil selling for $56.26, that’s $42,000 in revenue. Throw in a cost reductions and the profitability is comparable to a year ago. Further improvements to both costs and productivity per rig will create the doubling or tripling of profits in some regions, the Citi report says.

Variable Benefits

Profitability across the Eagle Ford formation, the most prolific shale area that spans South and East Texas, will surge 40 percent this year if productivity increases and cost cuts hold, according to the Citi report. For the richest areas in the basin, profits will go up more than 60 percent. Gains of 20 to 30 percent will take hold in North Dakota, West Texas and other areas.

Factoring in even the highest cost, least prolific wells, new drilling this year will turn a profit even at $50 a barrel as long as the industry continues its pace of productivity improvement, the report said.

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