Read? Sheikhs v shale
Just how positive will depend on how long the price stays low. That is the subject of a continuing tussle between OPEC and the shale-drillers. Several members of the cartel want it to cut its output, in the hope of pushing the price back up again. But Saudi Arabia, in particular, seems mindful of the experience of the 1970s, when a big leap in the price prompted huge investments in new fields, leading to a decade-long glut.
Instead, the Saudis seem to be pushing a different tactic: let the price fall and put high-cost producers out of business. That should soon crimp supply, causing prices to rise.
There are signs that such a shake-out is already under way. The share prices of firms that specialise in shale oil have been swooning. Many of them are up to their derricks in debt. Even before the oil price started falling, most were investing more in new wells than they were making from their existing ones. With their revenues now dropping fast, they will find themselves overstretched. A rash of bankruptcies is likely. That, in turn, would bespatter shale oil’s reputation among investors. Even survivors may find the markets closed for some time, forcing them to rein in their expenditure to match the cash they generate from selling oil. Since shale-oil wells are short-lived (output can fall by 60-70% in the first year), any slowdown in investment will quickly translate into falling production.
This shake-out will be painful. But in the long run the shale industry’s future seems assured. Fracking, in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected into shale formations to release oil, is a relatively young technology, and it is still making big gains in efficiency. IHS, a research firm, reckons the cost of a typical project has fallen from $70 per barrel produced to $57 in the past year, as oilmen have learned how to drill wells faster and to extract more oil from each one.
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The firms that weather the current storm will have masses more shale to exploit. Drilling is just beginning (and may now be cut back) in the Niobrara formation in Colorado, for example, and the Mississippian Lime along the border between Oklahoma and Kansas. Nor need shale oil be a uniquely American phenomenon: there is similar geology all around the world, from China to the Czech Republic. Although no other country has quite the same combination of eager investors, experienced oilmen and pliable bureaucrats, the riches on offer must eventually induce shale-oil exploration elsewhere.
Most important of all, investments in shale oil come in conveniently small increments. The big conventional oilfields that have not yet been tapped tend to be in inaccessible spots, deep below the ocean, high in the Arctic, or both. America’s Exxon Mobil and Russia’s Rosneft recently spent two months and $700m drilling a single well in the Kara Sea, north of Siberia. Although they found oil, developing it will take years and cost billions. By contrast, a shale-oil well can be drilled in as little as a week, at a cost of $1.5m. The shale firms know where the shale deposits are and it is pretty easy to hire new rigs; the only question is how many wells to drill. The whole business becomes a bit more like manufacturing drinks: whenever the world is thirsty, you crank up the bottling plant.