When asked in December about the projected slowdown in American shale output, the new US Energy Secretary shrugged off the notion, describing it as a mere ‘pause’. Blaming the expected slowdown to the ‘natural adjustments’ of oil and gas prices instead of a structural decline in production, Dan Brouilette is painting a rosy picture of US shale – where riches still lie underneath, waiting for the right price to be extracted. Of course he would paint such a picture. Brouilette is the new Energy Secretary, replacing Rick Perry. He couldn’t come in on a message of doom and gloom. But his pretty picture isn’t accurate either.
Schlumberger just posted a US$10 billion loss for the full year 2019, despite relatively flat y-o-y revenues. CEO Oliver Le Peuch called its international performance ‘positive’, but blamed ‘land market weakness’ causing a sharp decline in North American revenues and profits. Land market is code word for shale, and Schlumberger isn’t the only one facing problems. Halliburton announced a loss of US$1.1 billion in 2019, taking a US$2.2 billion charge on weakening US shale activity as North American revenue for Halliburton fell by 21% in 4Q19 and 18% for the whole year. While its results managed to beat analyst predictions – already stung by Schlumberger’s results – Halliburton doesn’t expect things to get rosier either, signalling that it expected ‘customer spending’ in North America to be down again in 2020.
And it isn’t just service companies suffering. US supermajor Chevron booked a US$11 billion write-down on a collection of assets in its latest set of financials, including on a major deepwater project in the Gulf of Mexico, the Kitimat LNG project in Canada and onshore Appalachian shale assets. Taken as a whole, the total impairment might coming from Chevron’s lowered forecast for oil and gas prices to the US$55-60/b range for 2020, but that shale was singled out is a major factor. And Chevron isn’t the only one. BP, Repsol and even ExxonMobil are expecting weakness. Only Shell and Total, who haven’t devoted as much attention to US shale, particularly the Permian, have been relatively insulated.
Why is this happening? There are two different factors operating. From a producers’ standpoint, the rising tide of US shale output is contributing to weakening global prices for oil – and that has a lot to do with the debt burden of existing US shale players, who have to keep drilling to pay off loans. Added conventional production coming online from Guyana, Brazil and Norway at the same time aren’t helping with prices either, despite OPEC+’s best intentions. From a service company’s perspective, firms like Schlumberger and Halliburton derive their revenue from drilling activity, not drilling output. And US drilling activity has dropped steeply over the past year, currently down by over 250 rigs according to the Baker Hughes weekly rig count. Much of this is onshore, principally in the Permian but also in other basins, as the once nimble and dynamic drillers are forced to stop activity either through bankruptcy or to shut shop temporarily as crude prices fall to uneconomical levels.
The US EIA has issued a new forecast, predicting that US shale output will slow down to a 1.1 mmb/d gain over 2020. That’s still optimistic, taking total US production to 13.3 mmb/d. In 2021, however, the EIA think output growth will fall even further, to an annual gain of just 400,000 b/d. Implicit to that forecast is that the EIA expects prices to remain subdued over the new two years, because shale drillers would respond to higher prices with increased drilling. There is also production structure to consider. Shale well produce immediate results, but show steep declines after. From 2012 to 2019, the amount of drilled but uncompleted (DUCs) wells – ie. wells that can be exploited within a short time frame – grew and grew; in the last 9 months, the glut of DUCs has shrunk – suggested that the industry is not drilling new wells as fast as they are completing already-drilled. Drilling activity has declined, and the chronic decline in the Baker Hughes active rig count – 18 of the last 21 weeks showed a net loss of rigs – is just proof of that.
It may not be the picture that Dan Brouilette wants to paint, but it is reality. The shale slowdown is real. It is also true that shale activity would increase if prices rose to more viable levels – say the US$65-70/b range – but let’s be honest, what are the odds of that happening when shale itself is the cause of weakening prices.
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This winter, natural gas prices have been at their lowest levels in decades. On Monday, February 10, the near-month natural gas futures price at the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) closed at $1.77 per million British thermal units (MMBtu). This price was the lowest February closing price for the near-month contract since at least 2001, in real terms, and the lowest near-month futures price in any month since March 8, 2016, according to Bloomberg, L.P. and FRED data.
In addition, according to Natural Gas Intelligence data, the daily spot price at the Henry Hub national benchmark was $1.81/MMBtu on February 10, 2020, the lowest price in real terms since March 9, 2016. Henry Hub spot prices have ranged between $1.81/MMBtu and $2.84/MMBtu this winter heating season (since November 1, 2019), generally because relatively warm winter weather has reduced demand for natural gas for heating. Natural gas production growth has outpaced demand growth, reducing the need to withdraw natural gas from underground storage.
Dry natural gas production in January 2020 averaged about 95.0 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d), according to IHS Markit data. IHS Markit also estimates that in January 2020 the United States saw the third-highest monthly U.S. natural gas production on record, down slightly from the previous two months.
IHS Markit estimates that U.S. natural gas consumption by residential, commercial, industrial, and electric power sectors averaged 96 Bcf/d for January, which was about 4.4 Bcf/d less than the average for January 2019, largely because of decreases in residential and commercial consumption as a result of warmer temperatures.
However, IHS Markit estimates that overall consumption of natural gas (including feed gas to liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities, pipeline fuel losses, and net exports by pipeline to Mexico) averaged about 117.5 Bcf/d in January 2020, an increase of about 0.2 Bcf/d from last year. This overall increase is largely a result of an almost doubling of LNG feed gas to about 8.5 Bcf/d.
Because supply growth has outpaced demand growth, less natural gas has been withdrawn from storage withdrawals this winter. Despite starting the 2019–20 heating season with the third-lowest level of natural gas inventory since 2009, by January 17, 2020, working natural gas inventories reached relatively high levels for mid-winter. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) data on natural gas inventories for the Lower 48 states as of February 7, 2020, reflect a 215 Bcf surplus to the five-year average. In EIA’s latest short-term forecast, more natural gas remains in storage levels than the previous five-year average through the remainder of the winter.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), January 2020 was the fifth-warmest in its 126-year climate record. Heating degree days (HDDs), a temperature-based metric for heating demand, have been relatively low this winter, which is consistent with a warmer winter. During some weeks in late December and early January, the United States saw 25% to 30% fewer HDDs than the 30-year average. This winter, through February 8, residential natural gas customers in the United States have seen 11% fewer HDDs than the 30-year average.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Prediction Center data
Headline crude prices for the week beginning 10 February 2020 – Brent: US$53/b; WTI: US$49/b
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