Is “US Energy Dominance” Overhyped? Top Experts Doubts Claims About Future Net Energy Exports

Yves here. The US seems overeager to be exceptional.

By Gary North,’s South-East Asia & Pacific correspondent. He writes about energy matters, geopolitics and international financial markets. Originally published at OilPrice

U.S. shale has effectively upended the oil industry, with predictions that total U.S. oil production will surpass Saudi Arabia’s output this year, in turn rivalling Russia’s to become the preeminent global producer. From its position of being dependent on, and subordinate to OPEC, the U.S. has seemingly become the big bad wolf. Through a catalogue of tactical errors and misplaced belief in its own muscle, the mighty brick edifice of OPEC has begun to look more like a bundle of sticks.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that the U.S. will become a net energy exporter by the late 2020s, but how accurate is that forecast, and to what extent is it mere hyperbole? In October last year there were already caveats about the nature of U.S. shale, with some warning that aggressive expansion was leading to rapid initial growth that would ultimately peak too soon. Mark Papa, former head of EOG Resources (NYSE: EOG) raised the question of flatlining output in the face of the doubling of the oil rig count, “(h)ow can a rig count be double and yet production be stagnant?”

Figures have also been influenced by the rapid pace of technological development, a pace which has itself plateaued. Robert Clarke, WoodMac research director for Lower 48 upstream, said that “(i)f future wells … are not offset by continued technology evolution, the Permian may peak in 2021”. IEA forecasts then, may be based on rapid growth and technological development that simply isn’t sustainable. Related: Shell Outsmarts Competition In The Gulf Of Mexico

Is U.S. shale just a sheep in wolf’s clothing, its bite ultimately as benign as grandma’s? The IEA is still forecasting that the U.S. will be the number one oil exporter by 2023 at 12.1 million bpd, but at the CERAWeek Conference in Houston on Tuesday, Papa is set to turn that thinking on its head when he warns the industry that shale will hit roadblocks that prevent such forecasts from being realized. He says the best drilling locations in North Dakota and South Texas are already tapped out. “The oil market is in a state of misdirection now,” Papa told the WSJ. “Someone needs to speak out.”

How much of this is indeed misdirection on his part? Papa is CEO at Centennial Resource Development (NASDAQ: CDEV), which holds the rights to 77,000 acres in the oil-rich Delaware sub-basin of the Permian. A slowdown in expansion and its potential consequence of increased oil prices is advantageous to Centennial’s shareholders, so who are we to believe guilty of misdirection?

A more conservative rate of growth may simply be desired by some, but it also may be an inevitability. Kevin Holt, chief investment officer of Invesco’s U.S. value equities has said that the situation many companies find themselves in is in part a consequence of the link between their leaders’ pay and production growth, rather than returns on investment. This has fostered a drilling frenzy that has resulted in an explosion of production – an unregulated drilling frenzy that may be at odds with the long term survival of those companies. Investors have subsequently demanded a more conservative approach to drilling, which appears to be having a stabilizing effect.

Ultimately the market is subject to myriad pressures, such as the heterogeneous quality of oil, fluctuations in labor costs and oil prices, as well as changes in the pace of technological development. These pressures shape the nature of the market, and also make it difficult to predict the longevity of tight oil reserves, and the ability of companies to exploit them. Another significant factor is regulation. How long will Trump’s EPA remain the castrated shadow of its former self, and how long until it begins to bare its own teeth?

Is Papa’s anticipated warning about to shake up the industry? Or is it merely the continuation of the chorus of restraint that many in the industry have been voicing in this period of massive growth and upheaval? Ultimately the industry will decide whether it will be eating out of Papa’s hand, or persist in biting the hand that feeds it.

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  1. Expat

    The US might produce 11 million bpd of oil and condensates, but it still consumes nearly 20 million bpd. So, while the US might become a large exporter, it will be a large net importer. I don’t see how shale or fantasy oil fields offshore Florida or in the ANWR will add 21 million bdp of production which would allow the US to be a net 12 million exporter. And by 2023? This must have been a typo.

    In any case, without a major transition away from internal combustion engines and heating oil, the US will not be a net export any time soon.

    As for shale, while the technology is improving, the rig counts show the true story. US production is not expanding in line with rigs, nowhere near it. Shale is Ghawar and never will be.

    1. Max4241

      “The US might produce 11 million bpd of oil and condensates, but it still consumes nearly 20 million bpd.”

      Exactly. The US is going to be a net exporter ….and a net importer…. of the same thing.

      And people accept this. We are leaving the Orwellian Age behind, and entering the Age of Insanity.

  2. The Rev Kev

    I’m probably going to get smacked down on this but all the oil that the US is pushing out comes from those shale formations, don’t they? But they are not like oil wells which you can keep pumping for decades but are more about sucking all the loose stuff that you can out of geological formations. And they deplete – rapidly!
    Has anybody worked out how many years it will be until those particular shale formations have been sucked dry? The article mentioned that some formations had already been run dry. This somehow smacks to me of trying to keep the age of cheap oil going a little bit longer.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, most of the increase in oil comes from oil shale. Unlike a conventional oil well, shale extraction means a constant process of fracking (driving a hydraulic fluid into the geology to release light oil and gas trapped in the rock pores), so its much harder to assess the long term viability of a reserve than with a conventional well, which is usually an oil filled underground void with a measurable capacity. The typical production life of a single ‘frack’ is around 9 months or so, although a single well can be fracked multiple times if the geology is right.

      If you google the geologist Arthur Berman, you’ll find many of his articles on the topic. He’s long been something of a fly in the ointment for the trade, as he has argued that extrapolations based on early explorations are likely to be too optimistic, as the industry is aiming for ‘sweet spots’, which will provide very good flows, but not a good indication of longer term potential. He has also pointed out (which is not denied in the industry), that unless new technologies are developed, the ‘drop off’ from peak production will be a much sharper decline than from a conventional oil field, as there will come a point where repeated fracking is not economically viable.

      So nobody ultimately really knows – if you believe the industry, better and cheaper techniques will allow fracking to extend outwards from known sweet spots to extend over the truly vast expanse of oil and gas shales that run from Texas up to Pennsylvania and New York state. The pessimists (who tend to include most oil geologists) say that the extractable oil is already getting worked, and the point of unviability will come very quickly, and there will be a very rapid drop-off. Only time will tell.

      Another point worth making is that oil is not as fungible a product as is often assumed. Shale oil is known as ‘tight oil – its very light, but there are only very limited numbers of refineries that can deal with it. This is why it goes hand in hand with the use of heavier grades to mix in, so it can be refined in existing facilities which are designed usually for Gulf of Mexico or Alaskan crudes. This oil is mostly Venezuelan heavy crude or Canadian oil sands product. So there is a sort of dance going on between these products to ensure tight oils viability. Its notable that so far as I’ve seen, nobody seems willing to invest in tight oil refineries, which to me suggests the industry is not optimistic about its long term potential.

      1. Synoia

        Another point worth making is that oil is not as fungible a product as is often assumed

        Very true. Refineries have to be “tuned” for a specif type of oil. Most refineries can only process oil from a single origin, and change of origin requires expensive, slow changes, made reluctantly.

        Why reluctant to change? Construction in refineries is dangerous.

      2. Amfortas the Hippie

        Yup. Fracking means scraping the dregs out of spent fields.
        Permian Basin(which I’ve seen touted as the “new saudi arabia”, lately) peaked in like 72 or 73.
        all over that part of texas are rusty pumpjacks, idle until the oil price gets rather high(Bush Darkness, they started running again)
        These are marginal wells, at best, without extraordinary measures(like fracking…what they used to call bottle-brushing*).
        Oil is finite…which means that at some point it will no longer be worth it to get it out of the ground(EROEI).
        Ergo, these big plays that will “make us energy independent” are flashes in the pan.

        (* my dad used to fish with a guy who did bottle brushing for saudi aramco, circa late 80’s, apparently a rare skill at the time. he said back then that they were gonna run out, because you don’t do that to healthy(sic) fields. )

  3. Anand shah has been behind shale oil production issues for the last decade and has published blogs / podcasts, interviewed experts, etc …

    Some articles are behind a paywall, but it is a very good source

    1. Chauncey Gardiner

      Ditto regarding overall supply-demand factors. Not a subscriber nor do I regularly follow sector developments, but big inventory drawdowns at Cushing, OK terminal over the past four months are puzzling in the face of rising EIA oil production data. Exports?…

      Read that OPEC representatives are meeting with US in Houston this week.

  4. John k

    Slow us expansion and the next recession, which might rival the last one because private sector debt, will push price sub 40.
    But majors have cut back exploration for some time, OPEC and Russia maybe in decline, and conversion to e cars minimal… I’m guessing new price record in five years.

  5. RBHoughton

    The weird thing about shale is it unites the power of the financial lobby who finance the drilling with the power of the oil barons who control the market – that gives it ‘umph’ in the capitalist world.

    My particular fear for America is that the entire country except the east and west coasts are approved for fracking. An important part of national food production comes from states like Kansas which use aquifer water entirely. If the farmers pump oil-flavored water on their fields it will have an effect on the harvests. In profiting one way, the country sustains a loss in another.

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