Shale drillers seen outspending the world with $84-billion spree

Joe Carroll 5/10/2017

CHICAGO (Bloomberg) -- U.S. shale explorers are boosting drilling budgets 10 times faster than the rest of the world to harvest fields that register fat profits even with the recent drop in oil prices.

Flush with cash from a short-lived OPEC-led crude rally, North American drillers plan to lift their 2017 outlays by 32% to $84 billion, compared with just 3% for international projects, according to analysts at Barclays Plc. Much of the increase in spending is flowing into the Permian basin, a sprawling, mile-thick accumulation of crude beneath Texas and New Mexico, where producers have been reaping double-digit returns even with oil commanding less than half what it did in 2014.

That’s bad news for OPEC and its partners in a global campaign to crimp supplies and elevate prices. Wood Mackenzie Ltd. estimates that new spending will add 800,000 bbl of North American crude this year, equivalent to 44% of the reductions announced by the Saudi- and Russia-led group.

“The specter of American supply is real,” Roy Martin, a Wood Mackenzie research analyst in Houston, said in a telephone interview. “The level of capital budget increases really surprised us.”

Drilling budgets around the world collapsed in 2016 as the worst crude market collapse in a generation erased cash flows, forcing explorers to cancel expansion projects, cut jobs and sell oil and natural gas fields to raise cash. The pain also swept across the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which in November relented by agreeing with several non-OPEC nations to curb output by 1.8 MMbpd.

Oil prices that initially popped above $55 in the weeks after the cut was announced have since dipped to around $46, reflecting pessimism that the OPEC-led deal can withstand the onslaught of U.S. shale.

So far, independent American explorers such as EOG Resources Inc. and Pioneer Natural Resources Co. are holding fast to their ambitious growth plans. Some recently finished wells in the Permian region yielded 70% returns at first-quarter prices, EOG CEO Bill Thomas told investors and analysts during a conference call on Tuesday.

EOG, the second-largest U.S. explorer that doesn’t own refineries, plans to boost spending by 44% this year to between $3.7 billion and $4.1 billion. Pioneer is eyeing a 33% increase to $2.8 billion. The sub-group that includes North American shale drillers like EOG and Pioneer is collectively targeting $53 billion in spending this year, up from $35 billion in 2016, according to the Barclays analysts led by J. David Anderson.

U.S. oil production is already swelling, even though output from the new wells being drilled won’t materialize above ground for months. The Energy Department’s statistics arm raised its full-year 2017 supply estimate to 9.31 MMbpd on Tuesday, a 1% increase from the April forecast.

Next year, U.S. fields will pump 9.96 MMbpd, 0.6% more than the department estimated last month.

To be sure, most of the biggest U.S. and European explorers -- an elite caucus of five companies known as the supermajors -- are pursuing a contrary path and cutting expenditures this year. As deepwater, oil-sands and other high cost, high risk investments soured during the slump, the supermajors were battered and had to regroup. But shale drillers, unburdened by such large-scale projects, have been better able to quickly respond to price changes.

Holding tight

Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Chevron Corp., Total SA and BP Plc are reducing or holding flat on 2017 spending. Only Exxon Mobil Corp., the largest member of the group, is pushing up its budget, planning to spend $22 billion this year compared to $19.3 billion last year.

West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, lost 14% of its value since April 11 amid signals the global crude glut isn’t shrinking at the expected pace. The futures fell 1.3% to $45.82 at 1:15 p.m. on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The price hasn’t poked above the $50 mark since April 26.

Shale drillers can afford to be sanguine despite oil’s recent tumble because they’ve cushioned themselves with hedges, Martin said. Hedges are financial instruments that lock in prices for future output and shield producers from volatile market movements.

“There is some price malaise creeping in,” Martin said. “But the aristocracy of the U.S. independents have insulated themselves” through hedging.

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