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 11 February 2019 – Brent: US$61/b; WTI: US$52/b
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Midstream & Downstream
Global liquid fuels
Electricity, coal, renewables, and emissions
2018 was a year that started with crude prices at US$62/b and ended at US$46/b. In between those two points, prices had gently risen up to peak of US$80/b as the oil world worried about the impact of new American sanctions on Iran in September before crashing down in the last two months on a rising tide of American production. What did that mean for the financial health of the industry over the last quarter and last year?
Nothing negative, it appears. With the last of the financial results from supermajors released, the world’s largest oil firms reported strong profits for Q418 and blockbuster profits for the full year 2018. Despite the blip in prices, the efforts of the supermajors – along with the rest of the industry – to keep costs in check after being burnt by the 2015 crash has paid off.
ExxonMobil, for example, may have missed analyst expectations for 4Q18 revenue at US$71.9 billion, but reported a better-than-expected net profit of US$6 billion. The latter was down 28% y-o-y, but the Q417 figure included a one-off benefit related to then-implemented US tax reform. Full year net profit was even better – up 5.7% to US$20.8 billion as upstream production rose to 4.01 mmboe/d – allowing ExxonMobil to come close to reclaiming its title of the world’s most profitable oil company.
But for now, that title is still held by Shell, which managed to eclipse ExxonMobil with full year net profits of US$21.4 billion. That’s the best annual results for the Anglo-Dutch firm since 2014; product of the deep and painful cost-cutting measures implemented after. Shell’s gamble in purchasing the BG Group for US$53 billion – which sparked a spat of asset sales to pare down debt – has paid off, with contributions from LNG trading named as a strong contributor to financial performance. Shell’s upstream output for 2018 came in at 3.78 mmb/d and the company is also looking to follow in the footsteps of ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP in the Permian, where it admits its footprint is currently ‘a bit small’.
Shell’s fellow British firm BP also reported its highest profits since 2014, doubling its net profits for the full year 2018 on a 65% jump in 4Q18 profits. It completes a long recovery for the firm, which has struggled since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, allowing it to focus on the future – specifically US shale through the recent US$10.5 billion purchase of BHP’s Permian assets. Chevron, too, is focusing on onshore shale, as surging Permian output drove full year net profit up by 60.8% and 4Q18 net profit up by 19.9%. Chevron is also increasingly focusing on vertical integration again – to capture the full value of surging Texas crude by expanding its refining facilities in Texas, just as ExxonMobil is doing in Beaumont. French major Total’s figures may have been less impressive in percentage terms – but that it is coming from a higher 2017 base, when it outperformed its bigger supermajor cousins.
So, despite the year ending with crude prices in the doldrums, 2018 seems to be proof of Big Oil’s ability to better weather price downturns after years of discipline. Some of the control is loosening – major upstream investments have either been sanctioned or planned since 2018 – but there is still enough restraint left over to keep the oil industry in the black when trends turn sour.
Supermajor Net Profits for 4Q18 and 2018
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$6 billion (-28%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$20.8 (+5.7%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$5.69 billion (+32.3%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$21.4 billion (+36%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.73 billion (+19.9%);
- 2018 – Net profit US$14.8 billion (+60.8%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.48 billion (+65%);
- 2018 - Net profit US$12.7 billion (+105%)
- 4Q18 – Net profit US$3.88 billion (+16%);
- 2018 - Net profit US$13.6 billion (+28%)