Every week, the EIA proclaims a new record for natural gas production. But their own forecasts show that the U.S. will be short on supply by October of this year. A price increase is inevitable beginning later in 2016.
Popular Myth vs Reality
The popular myth is that gas production will continue to increase and that prices will remain low for years. In the myth, price has no effect on production. The reality is that price matters and production is down 1.2 bcfd1 since September 2015
The production increases reported by EIA are year-over-year comparisons that don’t reflect declines during the last 4 months.
Prices have fallen to less than half what they were in early 2014. The average price for the first quarter of 2016 is only $2.25 per MBTU2
Hedges made when prices were in the $5-range carried many companies through falling prices as they continued to produce like there was no tomorrow. Tomorrow has arrived and the hedges are gone.
Over-production in the Marcellus Shale means that producers have to compete for limited pipeline capacity by deeply discounting their sales price. The best core area locations are commercial at $4 per mcf3 but wellhead prices averaged only $1.75 per mcf in 2015.
No Simple Solution to Falling Supply
There is no simple solution to falling supply. That’s because almost half of U.S. supply is conventional gas and it is in terminal decline. Now, shale gas is also in decline
Conventional gas supply has fallen 16.75 bcfd since July 2008. Until July 2015, increases in shale gas production more than offset those losses.
Conventional gas will continue to decline at about 5% per year because few companies are drilling those plays. Shale gas must, therefore, continue to grow by at least 15 bcfd per year just to offset annual conventional gas decline (~2.5 bcfd per year) and legacy shale gas production decline (~12.5 bcfd per year).
It will take 15 bcfd of new shale gas production in 2016 to keep U.S. production flat.
Shale gas production replacement and growth for 2015 were 14.5 bcfd, down from almost 18 bcfd in 2014. It will be difficult to match 14.5 bcfd in 2016 because shale gas production has been falling 0.72 bcfd (~2.2 bcfd annualized) for the last 4 months of data
Although additional reserves exist in the Barnett and Fayetteville plays, the core areas have been largely developed and marginal areas require substantially higher gas prices to be commercial. There is only one horizontal rig operating in the Barnett and there are none in the Fayetteville.
Production in the Haynesville Shale has decreased by 3.64 bcfd since its peak. High costs and relatively low EURs make the play uneconomic below about $6.50 gas prices. Parts of the core areas remain under-developed at today’s prices.
Marcellus production declined 0.52 mcfd since July 2015. Most of this probably represented intentional shut-ins because of low wellhead prices. Marcellus production can grow but new pipelines are needed to turn reserves into supply. Even with additional infrastructure, production will peak in the next few years just like in the older plays.
Production in the Utica and Woodford plays is increasing but it is largely offset by declining associated gas from the Eagle Ford, Bakken and other tight oil plays.
A Supply Deficit Even In The Optimistic EIA Case
The EIA forecasts that net dry gas production will increase 1.4 bcfd in 2016 and 1.6 bcfd 2017. Even with that optimistic forecast, their data still shows that the U.S. will have a supply deficit beginning in the last quarter of 2016
A supply deficit does not mean that there won’t be enough gas. There is ample gas presently in storage to cover a supply shortfall for awhile. That is what happened during the supply deficit in 2013-2014 (Figure 5). That deficit was created by flat production similar to what EIA predicts for the first 3 quarters of 2016.
What is different this time, however, is that net imports will reach zero in early 2017 because of decreasing imports from Canada and increasing exports. Add to that the challenge of replacing conventional gas depletion, and there is a much more serious supply problem than EIA’s already questionable forecast suggests.
Another big difference is that in 2013-2014, capital was freely available with average oil prices above $90 per barrel and average gas prices more than $4 per MBTU. Today, the oil and gas industry is in financial shambles with both oil and gas prices at very low levels, and it is unlikely that companies can raise the capital necessary to ramp up gas drilling quickly if at all.
Export plans of at least 7 bcfd by 2020 are not helpful considering the challenges of meeting domestic supply in coming years
The prospect of exports increasing to 13 bcfd by 2030 is even more troubling absent some new shale gas play that we don’t know about yet.
Higher Gas Prices Are Inevitable
A few years ago, the oil and gas industry convinced the world that the U.S. had 100 years of natural gas. Some of us cautioned that it is worth reading the fine print, that there is a difference between a resource and a reserve. The harsh light of reality eventually reveals that what seems too good to be true usually is.
The obvious solution to declining gas supply is higher prices.
The EIA’s STEO forecast calls for $3.17 per MBTU gas prices by December 2016 and for $3.62 by December 2017. Those prices will not support necessary drilling in legacy shale gas plays. EIA’sAEO 2015 reference case does not call for gas prices to reach $5 per mcf until 2025. We can’t afford to wait 9 years.
It is, therefore, inevitable that natural gas prices must increase sooner, preferably in the next 12 to 24 months. If oil prices remain low, a shale-gas revival may save the domestic E&P business. During the last supply deficit in 2014, gas prices averaged $4.36 per mcf compared to only $2.63 in 2015.
But it will take time for producers to reverse the decline in drilling and production. It may be difficult to raise capital for renewed drilling given the current distress in the oil and gas industry.
Something will have to give sooner than later. That will be natural gas export.
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 10 December 2018 – Brent: US$62/b; WTI: US$52/b
Headlines of the week
The Permian is in desperate need of pipelines. That much is true. There is so much shale liquids sloshing underneath the Permian formation in Texas and New Mexico, that even though it has already upended global crude market and turned the USA into the world’s largest crude producer, there is still so much of it trapped inland, unable to make the 800km journey to the Gulf Coast that would take them to the big wider world.
The stakes are high. Even though the US is poised to reach some 12 mmb/d of crude oil production next year – more than half of that coming from shale oil formations – it could be producing a lot more. This has already caused the Brent-WTI spread to widen to a constant US$10/b since mid-2018 – when the Permian’s pipeline bottlenecks first became critical – from an average of US$4/b prior to that. It is even more dramatic in the Permian itself, where crude is selling at a US$10-16/b discount to Houston WTI, with trends pointing to the spread going as wide as US$20/b soon. Estimates suggest that a record 3,722 wells were drilled in the Permian this year but never opened because the oil could not be brought to market. This is part of the reason why the US active rig count hasn’t increased as much as would have been expected when crude prices were trending towards US$80/b – there’s no point in drilling if you can’t sell.
Assistance is on the way. Between now and 2020, estimates suggest that some 2.6 mmb/d of pipeline capacity across several projects will come onstream, with an additional 1 mmb/d in the planning stages. Add this to the existing 3.1 mmb/d of takeaway capacity (and 300,000 b/d of local refining) and Permian shale oil output currently dammed away by a wall of fixed capacity could double in size when freed to make it to market.
And more pipelines keep getting announced. In the last two weeks, Jupiter Energy Group announced a 90-day open season seeking binding commitments for a planned 1 mmb/d, 1050km long Jupiter Pipeline – which could connect the Permian to all three of Texas’ deepwater ports, Houston, Corpus Christi and Brownsville. Plains All American is launching its 500,000 b/d Sunrise Pipeline, connecting the Permian to Cushing, Oklahoma. Wolf Midstream has also launched an open season, seeking interest for its 120,000 b/d Red Wolf Crude Connector branch, connecting to its existing terminal and infrastructure in Colorado City.
Current estimates suggest that Permian output numbered around 3.5 mmb/d in October. At maximum capacity, that’s still about 100,000 b/d of shale oil trapped inland. As planned pipelines come online over the next two years, that trickle could turn into a flood. Consider this. Even at the current maxing out of Permian infrastructure, the US is already on the cusp on 12 mmb/d crude production. By 2021, it could go as high as 15 mmb/d – crude prices, permitting, of course.
As recently reported in the WSJ; “For years, the companies behind the U.S. oil-and-gas boom, including Noble Energy Inc. and Whiting Petroleum Corp. have promised shareholders they have thousands of prospective wells they can drill profitably even at $40 a barrel. Some have even said they can generate returns on investment of 30%. But most shale drillers haven’t made much, if any, money at those prices. From 2012 to 2017, the 30 biggest shale producers lost more than $50 billion. Last year, when oil prices averaged about $50 a barrel, the group as a whole was barely in the black, with profits of about $1.7 billion, or roughly 1.3% of revenue, according to FactSet.”
The immense growth experienced in the Permian has consequences for the entire oil supply chain, from refining balances – shale oil is more suitable for lighter ends like gasoline, but the world is heading for a gasoline glut and is more interested in cracking gasoil for the IMO’s strict marine fuels sulphur levels coming up in 2020 – to geopolitics, by diminishing OPEC’s power and particularly Saudi Arabia’s role as a swing producer. For now, the walls keeping a Permian flood in are still standing. In two years, they won’t, with new pipeline infrastructure in place. And so the oil world has two years to prepare for the coming tsunami, but only if crude prices stay on course.
Recent Announced Permian Pipeline Projects
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 3 December 2018 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$52/b
Headlines of the week