Bloomberg TV recently aired a new special called “The Next Shale Revolution” that takes a look back at the last decade of shale oil development in the United States and what’s on the horizon in the future. The consensus: U.S. shale development is only in the “second or third inning” with plenty more to come.
In the beginning
The hour-long program features extensive interviews with a number of the people who helped to develop the technology that has unlocked a now decade-long U.S. shale oil revolution. As host Alix Steel notes,
“America has gone from energy crisis to energy success.”
It all began with independent producers taking risks and improving upon existing technology to open up resources that were previously thought impossible to develop. Nicholas Steinsberger, Director of Engineering for Renaissance Oil Corp., was on the Mitchell Energy team in the Barnett Shale that worked with George Mitchell – “the father of shale” – on developing technology to recover oil and natural gas from the play. He recalled,
“George Mitchell was so adamant about trying to make the shale work.”
Mitchell’s team developed what would become known as “slick water fracking” – using water, sand and some additives to hydraulically fracture wells. He explained,
“You start off with very low sand concentrations and ramp up over time. And to be honest with you, that is what is used in every shale play in the entire world today.”
That includes the Bakken Shale, where Harold Hamm and Continental Resources developed 18 wells before figuring out a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that resulted in economic amounts of oil. As Hamm told Steel,
“We knew it was a huge breakthrough with what we were doing. We didn’t have any idea it would be this extensive.”
Pioneer Resources’ Scott Sheffield described it taking the company three years to drill a profitable well in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale. Pioneers’ perseverance paid off, of course, and it has gone on to become a multi-billion-dollar company, thanks in large part to its efforts in the prolific Permian Basin. Sheffield did not mince words when speaking about the enormous potential of the Permian,
“I’m a firm believer that the Permian Basin will add eight to 10 million barrels per day” to current U.S. production.
A decade later
A lot has changed in the world of shale development over the last decade since these companies had those first successful wells. As Steel explained,
“Technology keeps getting better and wells keep getting cheaper. Each new rig is producing almost four times as much oil as it did in 2014, and for 57 percent less.”
And it’s no longer just smaller, independent producers in the game – major oil companies are also looking at “positioning shale as the next wave of growth.” Greg Guidry, Shell’s Unconventional Business Executive Vice President, told Steel,
“We need to be as nimble as an independent, but we also need to bring the strengths of a major. And those strengths are in technology, value chain integration and scale.”
He explained that the Permian is “probably the crown jewel of the Shell portfolio,” because,
“There is a resource that is quite attractive. It’s a very thick section. So you don’t just get one shale, you get several shales.”
But there is plenty more to come in the world of shale, as Guidry described,
“We’re very early on. I’d say we’re only in the second or third inning.”
“If I told you there are 200 billion barrels in place and we’re only getting about eight to nine percent of it, if we can increase it from one to two percent — that’s huge… one percent in the Permian is a billion barrels.”
Bringing needed stability to commodity markets
Shale has also meant lower oil prices, something that would have stifled U.S. development in the past. But as Goldman Sachs’s Jeff Currie explained, this is actually creating more stability for U.S. shale producers:
“By looking at that stability that shale can create in pricing, it creates more stability in the economy and a better opportunity in terms of creating more growth going forward.”
“I ultimately believe what we’re going to end up with is a perfectly flat supply curve somewhere around $50 a barrel.”
U.S. companies in particular are adjusting and beginning to thrive with this new price norm, leading Sheffield to project,
“Over the next 10 years, the U.S. will be 16 to 20 million barrels per day in a $50 to $60 oil price environment. We could be totally self-sufficient.”
In fact, as Steel explained, the once unimaginable goal of energy independence that the U.S. has long strived for could become reality as soon as 2020. That’s when some experts project the U.S. could become a net exporter of oil and natural gas. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) noted in August that in 2017 the U.S. is already exporting more natural gas than it imports. Oil imports are still around six million barrels per day (due largely to the fact that many of our refineries are set up for heavier oils from places like Canada and the Middle East), which is roughly three times the amount of oil as we export, but that’s likely to change in the near future.
No matter how you look at it, the shale revolution has transformed the way we view energy – and even a decade in, it’s only the beginning.