The Petroleum Truth Report

My goal is to offer clear and direct explanations of energy reality. These posts are data-driven interpretations of oil and gas topics that often challenge conventional thinking.
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Despite OPEC Production Cut, Another Year Of Low Oil Prices Is Likely

An OPEC production cut offers oil producers hope for higher prices in 2017. But there is a dark cloud hanging over that expectation. Global storage inventories must be substantially reduced before higher oil prices can be sustained. Some of U.S. tight oil has nowhere to go but into storage because it can neither be refined nor exported.

If all OPEC cuts take place as announced, it will be at least a year before sufficient inventory reductions allow prices to move much higher than current levels. If not, lower oil prices will last even longer.

The OPEC Production Cut and Spare Capacity

OPEC agreed to cut production in November partly because it was incapable of sustaining output at 2016 levels. Announcing a cut is a good way to cover the reality that commercial reserve limits have been reached.

Analyst narratives have created the unfounded but widely accepted belief that OPEC has a strategy, and that strategy involves a price war with U.S. tight oil producers. The cartel’s inaction since 2014 more probably reflected an unwillingness to repeat the mistake of cutting output between 1980 and 1985: those cuts had little effect on world over-supply and damaged OPEC market share and revenue.

The possibility of a production freeze  was suggested in February 2016 when oil prices were less than $30 per barrel. Expectation of OPEC action and improving fundamentals lifted prices to an average of $43 per barrel in 2016.

Failure to act in November probably would have sent prices into the mid-$30 range. As my colleague Allen Brooks remarked just after the cut was announced, this is more about setting an oil-price floor than about raising prices.

By July 2016, OPEC surplus production capacity had fallen to only 0.92 mmb/d  (million barrels per day).  The all-time low was 0.71 mmb/d in late 2004 (Figure 1).

low-spare-capacity-was-a-key-factor-in-the-opec-output-cut

Figure 1. Low surplus production capacity was a key factor in the OPEC output cut. Incremental spare capacity volumes are shown relative to the minimum levels in the time series; in this case, December 2004. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The negative correlation between oil price and OPEC spare capacity is obvious. Low OPEC surplus after 2004 along with increased demand from China corresponded to rising oil prices that reached $146 per barrel in June 2008. The exception to the correlation in late 2006 resulted from demand destruction when real oil prices (2016 dollars) exceeded $85 per barrel for the first time since 1982.

A production cut may bring higher short-term prices but it should also result in higher OPEC spare capacity, a negative factor for higher prices.

Massive Oil Inventories Are The Problem

After the 2008 Financial Collapse, declining OPEC spare capacity, falling OECD inventories, low interest rates, and record-high oil prices produced a classic oil-production bubble.

The bubble burst in 2014 as over-production resulted in swelling inventories (Figure 2).

oil-prices-collapsed-because-of-inventory-imbalance-will-not-recover-until-balance-is-restored

Figure 2. Oil prices collapsed because of inventory imbalance and will not recover until balance is restored. Incremental inventory volumes are shown relative to the minimum levels in the time series; in this case, November 2013. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

There is little chance that oil prices will return to the $70-80 range that many analysts predict until OECD storage falls approximately 400 million barrels to its 5-year average. If all the announced output cuts take place and extend beyond the 6-month term of the agreement, that will take at least a year.

The idea that there was a price war between OPEC and tight oil producers arose largely from a story line that analysts promoted. It was accepted and maintained largely by American hubris.

An over-supply of oil was the enemy if there was one and it negatively affected OPEC as much as other world producers. It resulted from the longest period of high oil prices in history. Brent was more than $90 per barrel from October 2010 through October 2014.

It is true that tight oil over-production was the biggest single offender in the supply glut and price collapse but all global producers contributed their share. It is likely that OPEC would have cut production in late 2014 if Russia had agreed to participate.

Ali Al-Naimi, the Saudi oil minister at that time said, “We met with non-OPEC producers, we asked ‘what are you going to do?’ They said nothing. We said the meeting is over.”

Tight Oil Is Not A Threat To OPEC

Tight oil has never been a long-term threat to OPEC because the reserves are relatively low. EIA year-end 2015 data indicates that U.S. tight oil proven reserves are less than 12 billion barrels.

Canada’s and Venezuela’s combined oil sands reserves exceed 350 billion barrels. Oil sands are Saudi Arabia’s and OPEC’s chief reserve competition, not U.S. tight oil (Figure 3).

oil-sands-are-saudi-arabias-chief-reserve-competition-not-u-s-tight-oil

Figure 3. Oil Sands Are Saudi Arabia’s Chief Reserve Competition, Not U.S. Tight Oil. Source: EIA, Hyperdynamics and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

In fact, tight oil production is a plus for OPEC. The U.S. must import increasing amounts of OPEC heavier oil for blending in order to refine the ultra-light oil produced from tight oil plays.

OPEC’S share of U.S. imports has increased 9% since January 2015. Total U.S. crude oil imports have increased about 1 million barrels per day and most of the increase has come from OPEC countries (Figure 4).

us-crude-oil-imports-opec-dec-2016

Figure 4. U.S. Total Imports of Crude Oil and Imports From OPEC Countries Have Increased 1 Million Barrels Per Day Since Early 2015. Trend lines represent polynomial fits. Source: EIA, Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc. and Crude Oil Peak.

Canada could provide almost unlimited amounts of heavy oil to the U.S. but the Obama Administration’s decision to block the Keystone XL Pipeline means increasing reliance on OPEC.

Another Year of Lower Oil Prices

OPEC members leaked the possibility of a production freeze in early 2016 when oil prices were $26 per barrel. Fears of further price collapse began to fade reinforced by improving fundamentals.

The U.S. horizontal rig count fell almost 250 rigs (44%) between the end of 2015 and late May 2016. The world production surplus peaked in January 2016 and moved unevenly toward market balance throughout 2016 (Figure 5).

the-world-production-surplus-peaked-in-january-2016-has-since-moved-unevenly-closer-to-market-balance

Figure 5. The World Production Surplus Peaked in January 2016 and Has Since Moved Unevenly Closer To Market Balance. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Oil prices rose to more than $50 per barrel by June but prices fell below $40 in August when an OPEC meeting in Doha failed to produce a production freeze agreement (Figure 6). Increased global output, slowing demand growth and higher petroleum products inventories also weighed on prices.

at-least-10-of-expectation-premium-is-included-in-current-oil-price

Figure 6. $10-$15 of Expectation Premium is Included in Current Oil Price. Source: EIA, CBOE and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

In late September, OPEC abandoned its market-based approach begun in 2014 and agreed to cut production. Prices moved up and down as the likelihood of a production cut waxed and waned through October and November. A deal was announced on November 30 and prices have increased from $43 to $54 per barrel mostly on sentiment.Without participation by Russia, there probably would have been no agreement to cut production.

It is clear that like the global economy, the oil-price recovery has been weak and fragile. Hope for some OPEC action has been a significant support for prices throughout 2016. There is probably $10 to $15 of “expectation premium” built into current oil prices.

Some analysts forecast $70 oil prices in 2017. I won’t recite the litany of reasons why OPEC members may cheat or that Libya and Nigeria may increase production. I am focused on the U.S. horizontal tight oil rig count that has increased 34% (85 rigs) since mid-September, 65% of which are in the Permian basin.

If two years of low oil prices have taught us anything it is that shale companies will produce oil at almost any price provided that investors give them money to drill. There does not seem to be any limit to investors’ willingness to believe that tight oil is a good bet.

There never was an over-riding strategy behind OPEC’s unwillingness to cut output over the last 2 years. More probably, it was based on a pragmatic recognition that cutting production without participation by Russia would not meet the cartel’s needs. Now that surplus capacity is exhausted and Russia has agreed to participate, a production cut makes sense.

U.S. output will rise but imports of heavier oil will be needed for blending. Excess tight oil will go into storage keeping U.S. inventories high and U.S. crude prices at a discount to Brent.  OPEC will sell heavier oil to the U.S. at higher international prices. OPEC knows this but those who are celebrating what they believe is OPEC’s surrender in a make-believe price war, apparently do not.

Permian Giant Oil Field Would Lose $500 Billion At Today’s Prices

Did you hear about the largest U.S. oil and gas field that’s in the Permian basin of west Texas?

That’s the one that’s not a field because it hasn’t been discovered yet. That’s the one whose 20 billion barrels are an estimate by the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s the one whose 20 billion barrels would lose $500 billion at today’s oil prices.

Wait a minute. What about the headlines?

Bloomberg: A $900 Billion Oil Treasure Lies Beneath West Texas Desert

USA Today: USGS: Largest oil deposit ever found in U.S. discovered in Texas

Deutsche Welle: Largest US oil and gas discovery made – USGS

Read the source–the U.S. Geological Survey.  The USGS did an assessment of the undiscovered, technically recoverable resources of the Wolfcamp shale in the Permian basin.

“Undiscovered” means what it says–it has not been discovered. It’s an estimate, an educated guess. “Technically recoverable resources” means the oil that could be produced if cost didn’t matter.

Where Did $900 Billion Come From?

Where did the $900 billion value come from? Multiply 20 billion barrels times $45 per barrel and you get $900 billion. In other words, if the oil magically leaped out of the ground without the cost of drilling and completing wells; if there were no operating costs to produce it; if there were no taxes and no royalties.

Sweet. Jeb Clampett shootin’ at some food.

In the real world, an average Wolfcamp well costs $7 million to drill and complete (Table 1 from my June 2016 post on the Permian basin plays). Average operating costs are about $12 per barrel. Severance taxes are almost 5% and the average net revenue per barrel after royalties is only 75%.

permian-economic-assumption

Table 1. Permian basin economic assumptions by play. Source: Company documents, SEC Filings and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The Cost

The obvious question that reporters apparently failed to ask is, What is all of this going to cost?

The USGS document “Fact Sheet 2016–3092” that summarizes the Wolfcamp study includes a table that allowed me to calculate the number of wells required to produce the estimated 20 billion barrels of oil.

For each subdivision of the Wolfcamp play or “AU” (Assessment Unit), the USGS provided a calculated mean number of potentially productive acres and the average drainage area of wells. By dividing the two, I was able to determine the number of wells (shown in yellow) for each Assessment Unit in Table 2.

table-1-from-assessment-of-undiscovered-aeb_nov-2016

Table 2. Key assessment input data for six continuous assessment units in the Wolfcamp shale in the Midland Basin of the Permian Basin Province, Texas. Source: USGS and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

According to the USGS’ input data, it would take 196,253 wells to produce the 20 billion barrels if it exists. At $7 million per well, that would cost almost $1.4 trillion in drilling and completion costs alone.

It would cost more than $1.4 trillion to generate $900 billion in revenue resulting in a net loss of $500 billion at $45 oil prices excluding all operating expenses, taxes and royalties–and no discounting.

That’s a discovery that no one can afford to make.

World Oil Production In Balance, U.S. Natural Gas Production Way Down

World oil production is in balance and U.S. marketed natural gas output fell for the first time since 2005.

The EIA (U.S. Energy Information Administration) published its Short Term Energy Outlook (STEO) today. Here are the highlights.

World oil (liquids) output for September was 96.47 mmbpd (million barrels per day) and consumption was 96.39 mmbpd. That resulted in a slight surplus of 80,000 bpd, about as close to balance as it gets (Figure 1). That’s bad news considering that the Brent price of $52 per barrel acts like there are a few million bpd of surplus. So much for the global economy.

Figure 1. EIA world liquids production surplus: +0.8 mmb/d. Source: EIA October STEO and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

EIA forecasts an average production WTI price of $50/barrel in 2017 with Brent $1/barrel higher.

The long decline in U.S. crude oil production appears to be over. September output increased 60,000 bopd (Figure 2).

us-prod-oct-2016

Figure 2. U.S. crude oil production increased 0.06 mmbod. Source: EIA October STEO and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Natural gas marketed production fell from 3.2 Bcf/d (billion cubic feet of gas per day) in 2016 but EIA expects it will magically gain 1 Bcf/d before the year is over (I doubt that).

Natural gas production continues its decline and total supply is projected to go into deficit in December 2016 (Figure 3).

steo_natural-gas-supply-deficit

Figure 3. Natural gas supply should go into deficit by December 2016. Source: EIA October STEO and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

This is the first annual decline in gas production since 2005. But never fear–EIA projects a 3.7 Bcf/d increase in 2017.

I’m not sure where that will come from given that their gas forecast is an average price of $3.07 for 2017 and the best shale gas areas need $4 while the other plays need more like $6/mmBtu.

I guess that hedges and awesome increases in productivity explain the expected production rally.

EIA forecasts gas prices  to average $3.04 for fourth quarter. Too bad the price is $3.31/mmBtu today!

U.S. Storage Filling Up with Unaccounted-For Oil

This is a joint post with Matt Mushalik, a retired civil engineer and regional planner based in Sydney, Australia, and may be seen also on his website Crude Oil Peak.

U.S. crude oil storage is filling up with unaccounted-for oil. There is a lot more oil in storage than the amount that can be accounted for by domestic production and imports.

That’s a big problem since oil prices move up or down based on the U.S. crude oil storage report. Oil stocks in inventory represent surplus supply. Increasing or decreasing inventory levels generally push prices lower or higher because they indicate trends toward longer term over-supply or under-supply.

Why Inventories Matter

Inventory levels have reached record highs since the oil-price collapse in 2014. This surplus supply is a major factor keeping oil prices low.

Current inventories are 45 million barrels higher than 2015 levels, which were more than 100 million barrels higher than the average from 2010 through 2014 (Figure 1). Until the present surplus is reduced by almost 150 million barrels down to the 2010-2014 average, there is little technical possibility of a sustained oil-price recovery.

crude-oil-stocks_5-year-avg-min-max-6-feb-2016

Figure 1. U.S. Crude Inventories Are ~150 Million Barrels Above Average Levels. Source: EIA, Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

U.S. inventories are critical because stock levels are published every week by the U.S. EIA (Energy Information Administration). The IEA (International Energy Agency) publishes OECD inventories but that data is only published monthly and it measures liquids but not crude oil. It also largely parallels U.S. stock levels that account for almost half of its volume. Inventories for the rest of the world are more speculative.

Understanding U.S. Stock Levels

Understanding U.S. stock levels should be straight-forward. Every Wednesday, EIA publishes the Weekly Petroleum Status Report  which includes a table similar to Figure 2.

figure-2-psw-table

Figure 2. EIA publishes adjustments and defines them as “Unaccounted-for Oil.” Source: EIA U.S. Petroleum Status Weekly (Week Ending September 16, 2016), Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc..

The calculation to determine the expected weekly stock change is fairly simple:

Stock Change = Domestic Production + Net  Imports – Crude Oil Input to Refineries 

Domestic production and net imports account for crude oil supply, and refinery inputs account for the volume of oil that is refined into petroleum products. If there is a surplus, it should show up as an addition to inventory and a deficit, as a withdrawal from inventory.

But that’s not how it works because EIA uses an adjustment in order to balance the books (Table 1).

table-2

Table 1. Calculation of Crude Oil Stock Change. Source: EIA Petroleum Status Weekly, Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc..

The logic is that estimated stock levels in tank farms and underground storage are relatively dependable and that any imbalance must be from less reliable production, net import or refinery intake data.

There is nothing wrong with adjustment factors if they are small in comparison to what is to be balanced. In the Table 1 example from September 2016, however, the adjustment is 60% of the stock change–a bit too much.

A one-off perhaps? No, it’s a permanent problem that has gotten worse during the last several years.

Figure 3 shows that crude oil supply and refinery intake of oil vary considerably on a weekly basis. The balance is cumulatively negative over time beginning with a zero balance in January 1983. That suggests that crude oil stocks should be falling over time but instead, they have been rising.

psw01_sep2016_mm_differences-between-us-crude-supply-and-refinery-intake

Figure 3. Difference between U.S. crude oil supply and refinery intake. Source: EIA Petroleum Status Weekly.

The vertical bars show the weekly crude supply from production and net imports either exceeding the refinery input requirements (positive, green) or not reaching these requirements (negative, red). The solid red line is the cumulative.

Between 1991 and 2002, the deficit increased to a whopping 1.3 billion barrels.

Looking at only recent history, an additional gap of nearly 200 million barrels developed as refinery intake exceeded crude oil supply for most of 2010 through 2014 (Figure 4).

aeb_differences-between-us-crude-supply-and-refinery-intake-2003-16

Figure 4. Difference between U.S. crude oil supply and refinery intake 2002-2016 (12-month moving average values). Source: EIA Petroleum Status Weekly, Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Adjustments were introduced in late 2001 so let’s look at the period starting January 2002 (Figure 5).

eia-adjustments-to-supply-to-reconcile-stock-changes

Figure 5. EIA adjustments to supply to reconcile stock changes. Source: EIA Petroleum Status Weekly, Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

There are both upward (blue) and downward (red) adjustments. Upward adjustments resulted in a 420 million barrel stock increase over the period January 2002 through September 2016.

All together now

Expected or implied stock changes calculated from weekly crude oil balance indicate falling inventories from May 2009 through the present. Yet, EIA makes adjustments to that balance in order to match observed inventory levels. Rising inventories result after those adjustments are added to the physical balance or implied stock changes (Figure 6).

figure-6-psw-workbook-sept-2016_mm-unaccounted-for-oil

Figure 6. Unaccounted-for oil in U.S. storage: the result of adjustments to the supply balance. Source: EIA Petroleum Status Weekly, Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The green area represents the physical balance (crude production plus net crude imports minus crude refinery intake). The gray area shows the unaccounted-for (adjusted) stocks.

The adjustment for unaccounted-for oil averaged about 15% from 2002 through 2010. In 2016, almost 80% of reported stocks are from unaccounted-for oil.

When You Have Eliminated The Impossible

There is no obvious solution for the mystery of unaccounted-for oil in U.S. inventories. Possible explanations, however, include:

  1. Crude field production is underestimated
  2. Net crude oil imports are underestimated
  3. Refinery inputs are over-reported
  4. Crude oil stocks are over-reported

or any combination of those possibilities.

Production, imports and refinery inputs are taxable transactions. It is likely that reporting errors are largely self-correcting over time because of the financial incentive for government to collect its due.

State regulatory agencies are the source of production data. Their principal objective is to assess production taxes. It is unlikely that states would consistently under-estimate production and forego substantial tax revenue.

Also, producers must state crude oil production in their SEC (U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission) filings and pay federal income tax on revenues from oil sales. It seems improbable that the SEC and U.S. Treasury would consistently accept under-reported production and associated lower tax payments.

Crude oil imports are subject to both tariffs and excise taxes so it seems unlikely that the U.S. government would consistently fail to identify under-payment of those revenues.

Similarly, taxes are involved when refiners buy crude oil and sell refined products. It seems improbable that they would over-state those transactions and consistently over-pay associated taxes.

The principal components of supply balance—production, imports and refinery intake—are shown in Figure 7. In a general way, increased production and decreased imports tend to cancel each other out. Refinery intake has increased since about 2010.

Those trends determine the physical balance or implied stocks. The inescapable conclusion is that implied stocks (in light blue) are substantially less than reported stocks (in gray).

Adjustments for unaccounted-for oil are unreasonable and out of proportion to the underlying factors that determine crude oil stock levels.

components-of-unaccounted-for-oil-in-u-s-stocks

Figure 7. Components of unaccounted-for oil in U.S. storage. Source: EIA Petroleum Status Weekly, Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

It would be speculation to blame anyone for this apparent statistical disaster. Nevertheless, there is a problem that has major implications for oil price and the reliability of reported data.

In several of his Sherlock Holmes mystery stories, Arthur Conan-Doyle wrote, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

We have not eliminated any impossible explanations. We have, however, eliminated the three most improbable explanations for unaccounted-for oil.

The truth—however improbable—is that inventories are probably much lower than what is reported.

Postscript

Some readers noted that EIA Weekly Petroleum Status Report (PSW) data that we used in our evaluation includes estimates of production, net imports and refinery inputs. They questioned whether EIA monthly Supply and Deposition data might resolve the disparity between implied and reported stocks described in this post.

Figure 8 shows the monthly averaged data from the PSW and implied stocks calculated from monthly Supply and Disposition data (the red line). The difference between implied and reported stocks before 2010 is less than in our original evaluation. The difference from 2010 through 2012 is approximately the same, and for 2013 through the present, the differences are actually greater.

comparison-of-implied-stocks-from-eia-petroleum-status-weekly-supply-and-disposition-monthly-data

Figure 8. Comparison of Implied Stocks From EIA Petroleum Status Weekly & Supply and Disposition Monthly Data. Source: EIA Petroleum Status Weekly, EIA Supply and Deposition, Crude Oil Peak and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

IEA-EIA Oil-Glut Bomb

IEA and EIA dropped an oil-glut bomb this month. Their September monthly reports indicate that the world continues to have a glut of oil with little hope of a balanced market in the near future.

IEA’s Oil Market Report focused on weakening demand growth for oil.Their quarterly data shows that year-over-year demand growth has decreased consistently from 2.3 mmb/day in the third quarter of 2015 to 1.4 mmb/day for the second quarter of 2016 (Figure 1). The forecast for the third quarter is only 1.2 mmb/day.

yoy-demand-growth_iea-master-2016

Figure 1. IEA world liquids demand growth is decreasing. Source: IEA OMR September 2016 and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

IEA downgraded its forecast for 2016 to an average of 1.3 mmb/day annual demand growth and only 1.2 mmb/day for 2017.

EIA monthly data from the September STEO (Short Term Energy Outlook) shows that world oil-consumption growth has declined from more than 4% in late 2015 and early 2016 to 2.1% in August 2016 (Figure 2).

consumption-growth-is-decreasing-with-increasing-oil-prices-_steo-master-june-2015

Figure 2. EIA Consumption Growth is Decreasing With Increasing Oil Prices. Source: EIA September 2016 STEO and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

EIA data indicates that maximum consumption growth as a percentage occurred when oil prices were falling into the low-$30 range and that it has weakened as prices increased into the mid- to upper-$40 range. This suggests the global economy is too weak to support oil prices in the current range.

The world production surplus increased in August because production increased and consumption decreased. The over-supply rose to +0.97 million barrels of liquids per day from near-market balance (+0.12 million barrels per day) in June (Figure 3).

world-liquids-production-surplus_steo-master-june-2015

Figure 3. EIA World Liquids Production Surplus: +0.97 Million Barrels Per Day. Source: EIA September STEO and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Both agencies stressed that high OPEC production levels are a major cause of continued world over-supply. Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia have increased crude oil production by 2.74 million barrels per day since January 2014 (Figure 4).

opec-incremental-prod-since-jan-2014-aug-2016-steo

Figure 4. OPEC Incremental Crude Oil Production Since January 2014. Source: EIA September 2016 STEO and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

This is why a production freeze by OPEC would not be particularly helpful.

One Hundred Years of Natural Gas? Not At These Prices

One hundred years of natural gas? Not at these prices.

U.S. gas production is declining and shale gas output is down almost 2.5 Bcf per day. Production is decreasing while consumption and exports are both increasing. EIA data indicates a supply deficit by the end of 2016.

Henry Hub spot prices have doubled since early March. Will companies show discipline to preserve higher prices?

Not a chance. They will drill more wells if investors continue to provide capital. This, however, will probably be too little too late to stop the decline in gas production that is already underway.

Real Gas Prices Have Never Been Lower

In February 2016, I wrote that an increase in natural gas prices was inevitable and in April, I wrote that prices would double. Now, spot prices have doubled from $1.49 on March 4 to $2.97 per mmBtu on August 29 (Figure 1).

Still, real natural gas prices (in July 2016 dollars) have never been lower. Average prices so far this year are just $2.20 per mmBtu. That’s the lowest annual price in since 2000 and it is lower than any monthly price except April 2012.

Real Natural Gas Prices Have Never Been Lower_STEO_NATURAL GAS MASTER

Figure 1. Real natural gas prices have never been lower than in 2016. Henry Hub natural gas prices are in CPI-Adjusted July 2016 dollars. Source: EIA, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Labyrinth Consulting Services.

Prices have increased because total dry gas production has declined 1.6 Bcf per day (Bcfd) from its peak of 75.29 Bcfd in February. Shale gas production has declined 2.4 Bcfd from its peak of 44.17 Bcfd (Figure 2).

Total natural gas and shale gas production have declined_STEO_NATURAL GAS MASTER

Figure 2. Total natural gas and shale gas production have declined since February 2016. Source: EIA August 2016 STEO, EIA Natural Gas Weekly Update and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Conventional gas has been in terminal decline since 2008 and shale gas production growth has maintained and increased U.S. supply. Now, that shale gas production is also in decline (Figure 3), it is unlikely that production will increase much without higher prices.

Shale Gas_MASTER

Figure 3. Shale gas production has declined 2.4 billion cubic feet per day since February 2016. Source: EIA Natural Gas Weekly Update and Labyrinth Consulting Services, inc.

All shale gas plays have declined including the Marcellus which is down -0.64 Bcfd (Table 1). Even the relatively new Utica play has declined -0.12 Bcfd. The legacy plays have declined the most: Haynesville, -3.77 Bcfd; Barnett, -1.91 Bcfd; and Fayetteville, -0.92 Bcfd. No new horizontal wells have been drilled in either the Barnett or Fayetteville since early 2016.

Shale Gas_PLAY DECLINE TABLE

Table 1. Shale gas play declines from maximum production. Source: EIA Natural Gas Weekly Update and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Shale gas plays were supposed to provide 100 years of supply but there never was 100 years of gas.

It was a story told to promote the erroneous idea that the U.S. had so much gas that it could afford to squander and export this valuable natural resource. It is true that some of the production decline from shale gas plays is because the plays are not commercial at current prices.

But whose fault is that? Conscious over-production reduced the price below the marginal cost so promoting increased consumption and export became the only ways to increase price.

The U.S. government has been a great ally of the shale gas companies. The SEC changed reserve reporting rules in 2010 making it easier for companies to book reserves and borrow against them. EPA air pollution regulations since 2011 have led to the closing of dozens of coal-fired power plants in favor of increased dependency on natural gas for electric power thus increasing demand. The U.S. Department of Energy has granted almost blanket approval to applications for LNG (liquefied natural gas) and pipeline export in recent years also increasing demand. And in 2011, the U.S. Department of State under Hillary Clinton created the Bureau of Energy Resources, a 63-person group to promote shale gas export and the spread of fracking technology around the world.

Meanwhile, E&P companies destroyed billions of dollars in shareholder value. They did this by knowingly producing gas into a non-commercial market and then, diluting shareholders by issuing more stock to fund more drilling and production.

Comparative Inventories Tell The Story

Natural gas storage is at near-record levels for this time of year. This surplus distracts from the likelihood of a supply deficit by the end of 2016 suggested by EIA STEO data (Figure 4).

STEO_NATURAL GAS BALANCE SEPT 2016

Figure 4. Natural gas supply should go into deficit by January 2017. Source: EIA September 2016 STEO and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Periods of production growth led to lower prices and lower gas-directed rig counts. Flat production led to supply deficits that resulted in higher prices and more drilling. During the last deficit in 2013 and 2014, spot prices averaged $4.06 per mmBtu. The ensuing low prices have resulted in less drilling and flat production.

It is, therefore, reasonable that the increase in gas prices since March 2016 will result in more supply but how high might gas prices go before that happens?

Comparative inventories are the best indicators of price trends. Comparative inventory is the difference between current storage volumes and the 5-year average of storage levels for the same week. Figure 5 shows that there is an excellent negative correlation between comparative inventory and spot gas prices.

Comparative Inventories Are The Best Indicators of Price Trends

Figure 5. Comparative inventories are the best indicators of price trends. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

That is because the U.S. gas market is a disequilibrium system in which production and consumption are never in balance. During the months of winter heating, consumption greatly exceeds production. Withdrawals from storage provide the portion of supply that remains unmet by production. Once winter is over, production exceeds consumption. Additions to storage restore that portion of supply needed for the next winter heating season.

Gas traders compare the current year’s evolving inventory level with that of previous years to determine if storage will be adequate to meet winter demand. If the rate of inventory buildup is judged to be ahead of expected winter demand, the price of futures contracts decreases. If that rate is deemed questionable to meet winter demand, the price of those contracts increases. Producer response to price signals is typically delayed until a price trend emerges to justify increased or decreased drilling. The potential for over-shoot and under-shoot is great.

Comparative inventory is, therefore, the best measure of the disequilibrium in the seasonal supply chain. It effectively removes the seasonal effects of energy use and plant maintenance that sometimes confuse the interpretation of absolute inventory levels.

Figure 6 shows that the fall in comparative inventories since May 2016 has been significant compared to both the 5-year average and to 2015 inventory levels.

Comparative Inventories Have Fallen Sharply Since May

Figure 6. Comparative Inventories (CI) have fallen sharply since May 2016. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Despite falling comparative inventory, prices commonly decrease in the late summer based on probable inventory levels needed to meet winter consumption. Although that may be happening now, I believe that higher prices will prevail by the end of 2016.

A simplified cross-plot of comparative inventory and spot prices suggests a range of likely year-end prices between $3.00 to $3.75 with a most-likely case of of approximately $3.35 per mmBtu (Figure 7).

2014-Present Comparative Inventories Suggest a $3.30 - $3.50 Price

Figure 7. Simplified 2014-present comparative inventory vs. spot price cross-plot suggests a $3.00 – $3.75 price range for year-end 2016. Source: EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Shale Gas Company Performance Is Weak

What will happen if gas prices increase to approximately $3.35 per mmBtu in the next several months? Operators with access to capital will probably add rigs and increase production. That is the correct response to market price signals in a market that believes company claims that they are making money at current gas prices.

Approximately 150 new wells are being completed each month in the currently active shale gas plays namely, the Marcellus, Utica, Haynesville and Woodford plays (Figure 8).

PA Marcellus-Utica-Haynesville-Woodford PROD-NUM WELLS 7 SEPT 2016

Figure 8. Number of new producing wells per month and gas production from the Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale, Utica Shale, Haynesville Shale and Woodford Shale plays. Source: Drilling Info and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Unfortunately, most companies cannot make a profit at current gas prices despite their public statements. Today’s wellhead prices in the Marcellus Shale play have increased to $1.34 per mmBtu and Utica prices averaged $1.44 in the second quarter of 2016. A few well-hedged companies may break even on costs in the best parts of the Marcellus and Utica core areas but most do not.

Even so, breaking even does not meet the standards of serious investors who need at least a 10-15% discounted return once the cost of capital, and project and commodity risk are considered. Most Haynesville and Woodford wells need at least $6.00 per mcfe to break even.

All leading companies in the Marcellus and Utica plays reported net losses for the second quarter of 2016  summarized in Table 2. Antero, Cabot, Gulfport and Rice apparently had better access to equity capital than the rest based on share offerings in the first half of 2016.

marcellus-producers-net-losses-equity-offerings-table

Table 2. Marcellus-Utica key operator second quarter (Q2) 2016 gains and losses and first half (1H) 2016 equity offerings. Source: Company documents and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

The debt loads and debt-to-cash flow ratios of these companies is alarming. The average for the companies shown in Figure 9 was 9.4 in the first half of 2016. The current bank-risk threshold for debt-to-cash flow is about 4:1.

q2-2016-sampled-eps-debt-to-cash-flow

Figure 9. All leading Marcellus-Utica operators exceeded debt-yo-cash fow bank-risk threshold of 4:1 in the first half of 2016. Source: Google Finance and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

Nor do the stock prices of most of these companies provide a good proxy for the substantial increase in Henry Hub spot prices of 75% since March 2016. Although the increase in stock prices for all companies exceeded 10%, only Rice and Consol out-performed commodity price and UNG (Exchange-traded natural gas fund) gains (Figure 10).

marcellus-producers-stock-prices-august-2016

Figure 10. Most leading Marcellus-Utica Companies’ stock prices under-performed spot and ETF gains since March 2016. Source: Google Finance and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

100 Years of Gas? Not At These Prices

Despite their financial weakness, I expect that a small number of producers will continue to find favor among yield-hungry investors. I doubt, however, that increased drilling by those companies and a few like them in the Woodford play will be able to reverse declining shale gas production and, therefore, U.S. gas production.

In the early 2000s, the U.S. was running out of natural gas. Canadian imports supplied 17% of U.S. consumption by late 2005. The shale gas revolution was a singular phenomenon that occurred initially because gas prices from 2000 through mid-2008 averaged more than $7 per mmBtu in real 2016 dollars.

In late 2002 and early 2003, a few wells were horizontally drilled and hydraulically fracturing in the Barnett Shale. Initial production rates were more than three times higher than Mitchell Energy’s vertical wells that had been drilled as an experiment in the previous decade.  Devon Energy and other operators applied for permits to drill more than 180 additional horizontal wells by mid-2003 and the shale gas rush was on.

A few years later in 2005, Southwestern Energy began the exploration and development of the Fayetteville Shale in nearby Arkansas. The apparent early success of the Barnett and Fayetteville plays heightened the frenzy of mineral leasing as prices soared to over $10,000 per acre. By 2007, Chesapeake Energy Corporation emerged as the dominant player in shale gas with a position second only to Devon in the Barnett and the leading position in the emerging Haynesville Shale play in Louisiana and East Texas.

Initial production rates of more than 10 million cubic feet (mmcf) per day from Chesapeake’s first Haynesville wells lead to an unprecedented land grab reminiscent of gold rushes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Plains Exploration and Production Company paid more than $30,000 per acre to form a joint venture with Chesapeake. Foreign oil and gas companies eagerly entered similar partnerships with the company in the Haynesville, Barnett and Marcellus plays while major oil companies like ExxonMobil and BP also entered the shale gas arena.

Range Resources tested the first horizontally drilled wells in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania in 2005. Development in the Marcellus was somewhat slower than the other plays but it has now proven to be the most prolific among them.

The explosion of production resulted from the mass participation in the plays by thousands of companies. Gas prices collapsed beginning in July 2008 with the onset of The Financial Collapse. After that, easy-money policies kept the party going for a few more years.

Over-production pushed gas prices well below the marginal cost of the wells. Liquids-rich and later, tight oil plays then stole the spotlight from shale gas. Gas could not compete with oil for profit or investor capital and it was really gas associated with the newer tight oil plays that kept gas production strong.

Despite the flagging fortunes of the shale gas plays, the natural gas lobby concocted a story that said the United States had 100 years of natural gas supply. This was based largely on technically recoverable resource estimates by the Potential Gas Committee that had nothing to do with reserves or economics. By 2012, the idea of 100 years of gas found its way into President Obama’s State of the Union address.

The collapse of oil prices in 2014 was the turning point for U.S. gas supply. It does not seem likely that oil prices will break out of their current range boundaries of about $40 to $50 any time soon and so associated gas will continue to decline. Even adding 150 new wells per month in the 4 active shale gas plays has not arrested or even slowed the inexorable decline of shale gas production.

North American natural gas supply is largely a closed system. Even a weak economy cannot suppress the price of gas as supply becomes less secure. That is because gas use has been implicitly mandated by EPA regulations and its low price over the last  7 years has greatly limited the growth of renewable alternatives.

Those regulations and the foolish decision to allow increased exports were founded on the preposterous belief that U.S. gas supply was almost unlimited, that we had at least 100 years of gas. It was a classic case of thinking that the future would be just like the present and immediate past, and that gas production would continue to increase forever. A similar irrational belief underlaid the real estate bubble that ultimately led to the 2008 Financial Collapse.

People in the eastern U.S. are not really all that into gas drilling, fracking and pipelines. Environmental groups have learned that they can slow the permitting and construction of pipelines. This has kept wellhead prices low and development in check.

There never was 100 years of natural gas. The Barnett and Fayetteville plays that began a little more than a decade ago are dead at today’s prices. No horizontal wells have been drilled in either play since January of this year.

The Haynesville Shale was a great disappointment but has considerable volumes that can be developed commercially at $6 gas prices or higher.  There are 35 rigs working in the Woodford play where liquids contribute to the value stream but unhedged producers need about $6 prices there also.

The Marcellus is the jewel in the shale gas crown and is currently providing almost 25% of U.S. total supply. Even the Marcellus, however, needs $4 gas prices for unhedged operators to break even. Although production has peaked, it will continue to provide meaningful supply into the next decade but not forever.

The Utica Shale is still in a relatively early stage of development but has the potential for commercial production at $4 to $5 gas prices in its core. That area is poorly defined at present but is smaller than the Marcellus core areas. Utica counties outside the core need $6 gas prices to break even.

The U.S. is not running out of gas yet. It will, however, take much higher prices to develop the remaining decade or so of supply. We have squandered the best production into a losing market and committed additional volumes to long-term foreign contracts that never made sense in the first place.

Declining production, greater consumption and increased exports have combined to make natural gas one of the best commodity values around. If somewhat higher prices cannot rescue supply then, even higher prices will be needed.

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