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The New Swing Producer: Shale Bounces Back

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The Economist

Fracking has brought a new dynamic to global oil markets: the ability to flex output up and down more quickly than conventional oil drilling, rather like factories responding to changes in demand

IN THE wilds of western Texas, a flicker of life has returned to the fracking, or hydraulic-fracturing, industry. In the past four weeks nine idled oil rigs have been put back to work in the Permian basin, the richest of America’s shale-oil provinces. That is only a tiny fraction of the 429 that had been taken out of service over the previous 18 months as the oil price plunged, at one point hitting a low of under $30 a barrel. But it is the first four-week rise in a year.

In recent weeks the oil price has recovered to around $50 a barrel (see chart).

Scott Sheffield, boss of Pioneer Natural Resources, one of the top producers in the Permian, points out that futures prices for delivery in a year’s time have also risen above $50 a barrel, which allows him to lock in a decent profit on any new wells he can bring into production by then. Hence he may soon raise the number of rigs his firm has drilling in the Permian from 12 to at least 17 and perhaps as many as 22. “The Permian has bottomed out,” he says.

All this supports the claim that fracking has brought a new dynamic to global oil markets: the ability to flex output up and down more quickly than conventional oil drilling, rather like factories responding to changes in demand. Conventional oilfields take years to develop and then produce oil for decades, leaving oil output relatively unresponsive to short-term price movements. Shale wells, in contrast, take just a few weeks to drill and frack, and have a lifespan of only a few years, so production quickly falls if drilling abates.

Shale-oil supply did indeed prove more elastic than the conventional sort when prices were falling, albeit with a delay. When the rout started in 2014, it took the shale-oil industry months to accept the fact that it was more than a temporary decline. But the number of rigs, and hence production, eventually plummeted, helping to bring the market closer to balance.

Shale-oil seems to be moderating prices on the way back up, too. On June 10th, the day Baker Hughes, an American oil-services provider, reported that for a second week in a row there had been a tiny uptick in drilling in America, West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the American crude-oil benchmark, fell back below $50 a barrel. If shale-oil is indeed acting like the valve on a pressure cooker, regulating the market when it gets too hot or cold, the result should be a less volatile oil price.

But the valve may not function perfectly. One question is the sustainability of the recent price rise. Shale-oil executives remember with chagrin the false rally of early 2015, which led them to maintain output longer than they should have. They note that the oil industry is still producing almost 1m barrels a day (b/d) more than the world is consuming. The International Energy Agency, an industry forecaster, said on June 14th that demand will not match supply until next year. “You don’t want to add rigs and then bring them back down again,” says Mr Sheffield.

Another concern is how quickly supply can really be ramped up.

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