Last week, OPEC sounded an alarm. Previously hopeful that the global crude markets would be balanced by June, which would allow it to walk back on the supply freeze that propped prices up at the cost of OPEC market share, the OPEC monthly report raised its expectations for non-OPEC supply for a fourth consecutive month. OPEC now expects global oil demand to grow by 1.6 mmb/d this year, which is more than previously expected. However, non-OPEC oil supplies will grow by 1.66 mmb/d, more than covering demand. The culprit, as always, is the US, where output is expected to grow by 12%. And this is not even the most optimistic forecast; the IEA expects non-OPEC supplies to grow by 1.8 mmb/d this year.
While this has near term implications – Saudi Arabia has already signalled that the OPEC supply curbs may have to extend into 2019 – the more important question is, how far can shale go? American oil production can consistently surpassed expectations over the past year, as the recovery in oil prices triggered a return rush to shale drilling. This will help US oil production reach 11 mmb/d by Q418; it could be even earlier, based on current production trends. By 2030, BP expects US shale oil to grow to 10 mmb/d, almost double its current level.
Despite the base case for shale production being constantly revised upwards – requiring lower long-term oil prices to clear – it is worth asking how realistic it is. There are suggestions that American shale production could hitting the wall; not because the of finite reserves in the Permian, but because of technology limitations. The application of new technology does not in itself create new energy, it only improves the recovery of hydrocarbons and at a faster rate. As reported in CNBC, "Mark Papa, a pioneer in the U.S. shale oil revolution, is warning that forecasts for booming U.S. production growth will leave industry watchers disappointed in the coming years as drillers burn through their best wells and tighten their purse strings. The impression of U.S. shale as the big bad wolf is perhaps a bit overstated, Papa told an audience at this year's CERAWeek by IHS Markit in Houston this year. Papa's comments were a stark contrast to the tone of cautious optimism at the conference, where many executives claimed that data analytics and technology, like machine learning, will improve efficiency in the oil patch and fuel further gains." Most people are focused on additions to the US rig count, productivity rates in shale wells are actually declining, while costs per well are rising. Major players seem to be mitigating this by creating larger fields by connecting wells, but there is also a looming logistical and manpower crunch. The WSJ reports that "Oil infrastructure is the most glaring constraint to limitless growth in U.S. shale output, said analysts for Energy Aspects in a recent note. The Permian basin had 10 oil takeaway pipelines with a combined capacity of 2.92 million barrels a day as of February 2018, said analysts. There will be a shortage of takeaway capacity in the Permian by August, which will only get worse into year-end, noted experts." This suggests that while shale production is still on the steep part of its growth curve, that could soon plateau out and that long-term forecasts are overstated. That would be good news for oil prices in the long run.
However, there are signs that the opposite could be true. Investment into shale players is increasing, giving them more funds to play with. With money, come more interest – solving, or at least, mitigating most of the upcoming bottlenecks. It seems that either more debt through borrowings or the capital markets is driving this production surge, particularly in the USA. However it is worth noting that the USA is not the only place the shale revolution is taking place. By the end of this month, Saudi Arabia will have produced its first shale gas from the North Arabia basin. The giant South Ghawar and Jafurah basins – which reportedly rival Eagle Ford in size – are also underway. Promising finds are improving moods in China and Argentina shale as well, while the UK drilled its first shale well last year. Even if the American shale revolution hits the brakes, the movement could continue elsewhere, which would mean that current non-US share oil production forecasts maybe understated? There is little data out there about the profitability or economics of non-US shale fields.
Both the low and high scenarios make compelling cases. Both, however are closely tied to current developments in US oil production. Ultimately the base case for shale will depend on economics but more importantly the demand for hydrocarbons in the medium to long term. If oil demand keeps growing, so will the need for more oil, but any large surge would only dampen prices all over again, effectively killing shale production. So can shale go far, technically possible, as there are proven reserves all around the world that are still untapped. But like with everything else, it's the economics and geopolitical factors that will define its days ahead.
Various production forecasts for American shale tight oil production
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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%)