This is an interview with Arthur Berman. Arthur is a geological consultant with thirty-four years of experience in petroleum exploration and production. He is currently consulting for several E&P companies and capital groups in the energy sector.
James Stafford: Almost on a daily basis we have figures thrown at us to demonstrate how the shale boom is only getting started. Mostly recently, there are statements to the effect that Texas shale formations will produce up to one-third of the global oil supply over the next 10 years. Is there another story behind these figures?
AB: First, we have to distinguish between shale gas and liquids plays. On the gas side, all shale gas plays except the Marcellus are in decline or flat. The growth of US supply rests solely on the Marcellus and it is unlikely that its growth can continue at present rates. On the oil side, the Bakken has a considerable commercial area that is perhaps only one-third developed so we see Bakken production continuing for several years before peaking. The Eagle Ford also has significant commercial area but is showing signs that production may be flattening. Nevertheless, we see 5 or so more years of continuing Eagle Ford production activity before peaking. The EIA has is about right for the liquids plays--slower increases until later in the decade, and then decline.
The idea that Texas shales will produce one-third of global oil supply is preposterous. The Eagle Ford and the Bakken comprise 80% of all the US liquids growth. The Permian basin has notable oil reserves left but mostly from very small accumulations and low-rate wells. EOG CEO Bill Thomas said the same thing about 10 days ago on EOG's earnings call. There have been some truly outrageous claims made by some executives about the Permian basin in recent months that I suspect have their general counsels looking for a defibrillator.
Recently, the CEO of a major oil company told The Houston Chronicle that the shale revolution is only in the "first inning of a nine-inning game”. I guess he must have lost track of the score while waiting in line for hot dogs because production growth in U.S. shale gas plays excluding the Marcellus is approaching zero; growth in the Bakken and Eagle Ford has fallen from 33% in mid-2011 to 7% in late 2013.
Oil companies have to make a big deal about shale plays because that is all that is left in the world. Let's face it: these are truly awful reservoir rocks and that is why we waited until all more attractive opportunities were exhausted before developing them. It is completely unreasonable to expect better performance from bad reservoirs than from better reservoirs.
The majors have shown that they cannot replace reserves. They talk about return on capital employed (ROCE) these days instead of reserve replacement and production growth because there is nothing to talk about there. Shale plays are part of the ROCE story--shale wells can be drilled and brought on production fairly quickly and this masks or smoothes out the non-productive capital languishing in big projects around the world like Kashagan and Gorgon, which are going sideways whilst eating up billions of dollars.
None of this is meant to be negative. I'm all for shale plays but let's be honest about things, after all! Production from shale is not a revolution; it's a retirement party.
JS: Is the shale “boom” sustainable?
AB: The shale gas boom is not sustainable except at higher gas prices in the US. There is lots of gas--just not that much that is commercial at current prices. Analysts that say there are trillions of cubic feet of commercial gas at $4 need their cost assumptions audited. If they are not counting overhead (G&A) and many operating costs, then of course things look good. If Walmart were evaluated solely on the difference between wholesale and retail prices, they would look fantastic. But they need stores, employees, gas and electricity, advertising and distribution. So do gas producers. I don't know where these guys get their reserves either, but that needs to be audited as well.
There was a report recently that said large areas of the Barnett Shale are commercial at $4 gas prices and that the play will continue to produce lots of gas for decades. Some people get so intrigued with how much gas has been produced and could be in the future, that they don't seem to understand that this is a business. A business must be commercial to be successful over the long term, although many public companies in the US seem to challenge that concept.
Investors have tolerated a lot of cheerleading about shale gas over the years, but I don't think this is going to last. Investors are starting to ask questions, such as: Where are the earnings and the free cash flow. Shale companies are spending a lot more than they are earning, and that has not changed. They are claiming all sorts of efficiency gains on the drilling side that has distracted inquiring investors for awhile. I was looking through some investor presentations from 2007 and 2008 and the same companies were making the same efficiency claims then as they are now. The problem is that these impressive gains never show up in the balance sheets, so I guess they must not be very important after all.
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