Category: Education / Research
Turns out, America’s decade-long shale boom might just end up being a little too good to be true.
“The EIA is assuming that productivity of individual wells will continue to rise as a result of improvements in technology,” said Justin B. Montgomery, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the study’s authors. “This compounds year after year, like interest, so the further out in the future the wells are drilled, the more that they are being overestimated.”
Extrapolating from field studies Montgomery and his colleague Francis O’Sullivan conducted in North Dakota’s Bakken shale deposit, the research suggests that total U.S. oil and natural-gas production from new wells could undershoot the EIA estimate by more than 10 percent in 2020. Things would get progressively worse each year after that as wells in various sweet spots are exhausted and technology fails to close the gap.
“The same forecasting methods are used in other plays in the U.S., and the same dynamic is likely to be present,” Montgomery added.
Margaret Coleman, the EIA’s leader of oil, gas and biofuels exploration and production analysis, said in an email “the study raises valid points” and the administration is looking at ways to give its estimates a tighter focus. She added that many shale fields lack the detailed well data that informed the MIT study, which means EIA forecasters have to use known geologic information and assumptions about prices and technology to come up with estimates.
There’s little doubt the technologies used to extract oil and natural gas trapped within rock formations thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface — like drill heads, mapping software, fracking techniques and so on — have gotten better. And intuitively, it makes a lot of sense that better methods have boosted U.S. shale output and helped lead to new finds.
“It’s really hard to bet against the ability of the industry to improve and get more out of the rock,” said Manuj Nikhanj, co-chief executive officer of RS Energy Group.
Just last month, International Energy Agency Executive Director Fatih Birol said shale production will make the U.S. the “undisputed leader of global oil and gas markets for decades to come.”
But if the MIT researchers are ultimately right, the implications could be significant.
In the past three years, oil prices have been stuck around $50 a barrel on the back of rising shale output in the U.S., while natural gas has been selling for an average of less than $3 per million British thermal units. (As recently as 2014, prices for both were twice as high.)
Not only could a slowdown in production mean higher energy prices, but it also might just mark the end of the U.S. shale industry’s role as the one swing producer able to counter OPEC’s might. The shale boom has repeatedly frustrated the Saudi-led cartel’s attempts to control oil prices.
As recently as 2015, OPEC tried to pump its U.S. rivals out of business, only to blink after shale drillers adapted by reducing costs. On Thursday, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies agreed to maintain oil-output cuts through 2018, extending a campaign to wrest back the global market from America’s shale industry.
President Donald Trump himself has talked up “energy dominance” as a key policy, with U.S. oil and gas helping supply the world’s power needs.
Of course, the MIT researchers aren’t the first to question the projected growth of U.S. shale. Analysts have long debated varying methods used to predict output. And unsurprisingly, the Saudis have cast doubt on how long the shale boom can last. Even billionaire oilman Harold Hamm recently slammed what he considered EIA’s “exaggerated” forecasts, saying they’re depressing U.S. oil prices. (After all, higher prices are better for the bottom line.)
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