U.S. shale on track for $200 billion year, could erase its debt by 2024

Kevin Crowley August 25, 2022

(Bloomberg) — U.S. shale producers are on course to make nearly $200 billion this year, enough to make the industry debt-free by 2024 and potentially fund a pivot toward more natural gas production, according to Deloitte LLP. 

High oil prices and disciplined capital spending mean American frackers are on course for their most profitable year on record, part of a global trend that will see the oil and gas industry generate a record $1.4 trillion of free cash flow, Deloitte said in a report. After paying down debt and rewarding shareholders, US producers will likely focus more on natural gas production due to high demand and prices around the world. 

“We see a shift in upstream activity toward natural gas,” Amy Chronis, Deloitte’s US oil, gas and chemicals leader, said in an interview. Shale operators “will double down on US natural gas basins” and may have enough money left over to increase investments in low-carbon fuels. 

The key difference with this year’s oil and gas boom is not so much high prices, but the industry’s lack of capital expenditure compared with historical norms. Global operators are spending about 60% less on oil and gas production projects now than they were in 2014, the last time oil was trading around $100 a barrel, Deloitte’s data show. 

“Investments are decoupling from oil prices and capex discipline is now a norm,” the report said. 

The trend is most powerfully seen in US shale, which burned through about $300 billion of cash from 2010 to 2019. But for those companies that survived the pandemic, the bounty is well and truly here. The industry will have made back that entire loss in 2021 and 2022, with further profits on the horizon for the rest of the decade. Deloitte’s analysis assumes an average Brent oil price of $106 a barrel for 2022 and $81 a barrel for 2023. Brent futures settled at $101.22 a barrel on Wednesday.

The report also showed the scale of the profits beginning to come from US liquefied natural gas operators. They are expected to make $59 billion this year, double last year’s amount and easily making back $45 billion of losses from 2013 to 2020. 

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