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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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)
In its January 2020 Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that annual U.S. crude oil production will average 11.1 million b/d in 2021, down 0.2 million b/d from 2020 as result of a decline in drilling activity related to low oil prices. A production decline in 2021 would mark the second consecutive year of production declines. Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic led to supply and demand disruptions. EIA expects crude oil production to increase in 2022 by 0.4 million b/d because of increased drilling as prices remain at or near $50 per barrel (b).
The United States set annual natural gas production records in 2018 and 2019, largely because of increased drilling in shale and tight oil formations. The increase in production led to higher volumes of natural gas in storage and a decrease in natural gas prices. In 2020, marketed natural gas production fell by 2% from 2019 levels amid responses to COVID-19. EIA estimates that annual U.S. marketed natural gas production will decline another 2% to average 95.9 billion cubic feet per day (Bcf/d) in 2021. The fall in production will reverse in 2022, when EIA estimates that natural gas production will rise by 2% to 97.6 Bcf/d.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO)
EIA’s forecast for crude oil production is separated into three regions: the Lower 48 states excluding the Federal Gulf of Mexico (GOM) (81% of 2019 crude oil production), the GOM (15%), and Alaska (4%). EIA expects crude oil production in the U.S. Lower 48 states to decline through the first quarter of 2021 and then increase through the rest of the forecast period. As more new wells come online later in 2021, new well production will exceed the decline in legacy wells, driving the increase in overall crude oil production after the first quarter of 2021.
Associated natural gas production from oil-directed wells in the Permian Basin will fall because of lower West Texas Intermediate crude oil prices and reduced drilling activity in the first quarter of 2021. Natural gas production from dry regions such as Appalachia depends on the Henry Hub price. EIA forecasts the Henry Hub price will increase from $2.00 per million British thermal units (MMBtu) in 2020 to $3.01/MMBtu in 2021 and to $3.27/MMBtu in 2022, which will likely prompt an increase in Appalachia's natural gas production. However, natural gas production in Appalachia may be limited by pipeline constraints in 2021 if the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) is delayed. The MVP is scheduled to enter service in late 2021, delivering natural gas from producing regions in northwestern West Virginia to southern Virginia. Natural gas takeaway capacity in the region is quickly filling up since the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was canceled in mid-2020.
Just when it seems that the drama of early December, when the nations of the OPEC+ club squabbled over how to implement and ease their collective supply quotas in 2021, would be repeated, a concession came from the most unlikely quarter of all. Saudi Arabia. OPEC’s swing producer and, especially in recent times, vocal judge, announced that it would voluntarily slash 1 million barrels per day of supply. The move took the oil markets by surprise, sending crude prices soaring but was also very unusual in that it was not even necessary at all.
After a day’s extension to the negotiations, the OPEC+ club had actually already agreed on the path forward for their supply deal through the remainder of Q1 2021. The nations of OPEC+ agreed to ease their overall supply quotas by 75,000 b/d in February and 120,000 b/d in March, bringing the total easing over three months to 695,000 b/d after the UAE spearheaded a revised increase of 500,000 b/d for January. The increases are actually very narrow ones; there were no adjustments for quotas for all OPEC+ members with the exception of Russia and Kazakshtan, who will be able to pump 195,000 additional barrels per day between them. That the increases for February and March were not higher or wider is a reflection of reality: despite Covid-19 vaccinations being rolled out globally, a new and more infectious variant of the coronavirus has started spreading across the world. In fact, there may even be at least of these mutations currently spreading, throwing into question the efficacy of vaccines and triggering new lockdowns. The original schedule of the April 2020 supply deal would have seen OPEC+ adding 2 million b/d of production from January 2021 onwards; the new tranches are far more measured and cognisant of the challenging market.
Then Saudi Arabia decides to shock the market by declaring that the Kingdom would slash an additional million barrels of crude supply above its current quota over February and March post-OPEC+ announcement. Which means that while countries such as Russia, the UAE and Nigeria are working to incrementally increase output, Saudi Arabia is actually subsidising those planned increases by making a massive additional voluntary cut. For a member that threw its weight around last year by unleashing taps to trigger a crude price war with Russia and has been emphasising the need for strict compliant by all members before allowing any collective increases to take place, this is uncharacteristic. Saudi Arabia may be OPEC’s swing producer, but it is certainly not that benevolent. Not least because it is expected to record a massive US$79 billion budget deficit for 2020 as low crude prices eat into the Kingdom’s finances.
So, why is Saudi Arabia doing this?
The last time the Saudis did this was in July 2020, when the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic was at devastating levels and crude prices needed some additional propping up. It succeeded. In January 2021, however, global crude prices are already at the US$50/b level and the market had already cheered the resolution of OPEC+’s positions for the next two months. There was no real urgent need to make voluntary cuts, especially since no other OPEC member would suit especially not the UAE with whom there has been a falling out.
The likeliest reason is leadership. Having failed to convince the rest of the OPEC+ gang to avoid any easing of quotas, Saudi Arabia could be wanting to prove its position by providing a measure of supply security at a time of major price sensitivity due to the Covid-19 resurgence. It will also provide some political ammunition for future negotiations when the group meets in March to decide plans for Q2 2021, turning this magnanimous move into an implicit threat. It could also be the case that Saudi Arabia is planning to pair its voluntary cut with field maintenance works, which would be a nice parallel to the usual refinery maintenance season in Asia where crude demand typically falls by 10-20% as units shut for routine inspections.
It could also be a projection of soft power. After isolating Qatar physically and economically since 2017 over accusations of terrorism support and proximity to Iran, four Middle Eastern states – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt – have agreed to restore and normalise ties with the peninsula. While acknowledging that a ‘trust deficit’ still remained, the accord avoids the awkward workarounds put in place to deal with the boycott and provides for road for cooperation ahead of a change on guard in the White House. Perhaps Qatar is even thinking of re-joining OPEC? As Saudi Arabia flexes its geopolitical muscle, it does need to pick its battles and re-assert its position. Showcasing political leadership as the world’s crude swing producer is as good a way of demonstrating that as any, even if it is planning to claim dues in the future.
It worked. It has successfully changed the market narrative from inter-OPEC+ squabbling to a more stabilised crude market. Saudi Arabia’s patience in prolonging this benevolent role is unknown, but for now, it has achieved what it wanted to achieve: return visibility to the Kingdom as the global oil leader, and having crude oil prices rise by nearly 10%.