Opec’s worst fears are coming true. Twenty months after Saudi Arabia took the fateful decision to flood world markets with oil, it has still failed to break the back of the US shale industry.
The Saudi-led Gulf states have certainly succeeded in killing off a string of global mega-projects in deep waters. Investment in upstream exploration from 2014 to 2020 will be $1.8 trillion less than previously assumed, according to consultants IHS. But this is a bitter victory at best.
North America’s hydraulic frackers are cutting costs so fast that most can now produce at prices far below levels needed to fund the Saudi welfare state and its military machine, or to cover Opec budget deficits.
Scott Sheffield, the outgoing chief of Pioneer Natural Resources, threw down the gauntlet last week – with some poetic licence – claiming that his pre-tax production costs in the Permian Basin of West Texas have fallen to $2.25 a barrel.
“Definitely we can compete with anything that Saudi Arabia has. We have the best rock,” he said. Revolutionary improvements in drilling technology and data analytics that have changed the cost calculus faster than almost anybody thought possible.
The ‘decline rate’ of production over the first four months of each well was 90pc a decade ago for US frackers. This dropped to 31pc in 2012. It is now 18pc. Drillers have learned how to extract more.
Mr Sheffield said the Permian is as bountiful as the giant Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia and can expand from 2m to 5m barrels a day even if the price of oil never rises above $55.
His company has cut production costs by 26pc over the last year alone. Pioneer is now so efficient that it is already adding five new rigs despite today’s depressed prices in the low $40s. It is not alone.
The Baker Hughes count of North America oil rigs has risen for seven out of the last eight weeks to 374, and this understates the effect. Multi-pad drilling means that three wells are now routinely drilled from the same rig, and sometimes six or more. Average well productivity has risen fivefold in the Permian since early 2012.
Consultants Wood Mackenzie estimated in a recent report that full-cycle break-even costs have fallen to $37 at Wolfcamp and Bone Spring in the Permian, and to $35 in the South Central Oklahoma Oil Province. The majority of US shale fields are now viable at $60.
This is a cold douche for Opec. It has been an article of faith among Gulf exporters that hedging contracts had kept US shale companies on life-support and that there would be a brutal cull as these expired in the first half of this year.
No such Gotterdamerung has occurred. A few over-leveraged players have gone bankrupt, but Blackstone, Carlyle and other private equity groups are waiting on the sidelines to buy distressed assets and take over the infrastructure.