Shale still vulnerable if OPEC gets nasty

America is now the largest producer of oil in the world. For the U.S., this is great news as the dream of energy independence grows and maybe one day we can tell OPEC to go take a hike.

However, while the shale oil revolution has helped change the energy landscape forever, we cannot take shale for granted. We can’t just assume that the industry can withstand any price and that production can keep rising despite the market conditions. We can’t assume that shale oil producers can match OPEC production cuts barrel for barrel.

We also can’t assume OPEC, weakened by falling prices of late, won’t strike back like they did in 2014. That’s when OPEC declared a production war on U.S. shale producers.  The then de facto head of the OPEC Cartel Ali al-Naimi spoke about market share rivalry with the United States and said that they wanted a battle with the U.S. There were no winners in that production war. Ali al-Naimi was sacked as he almost bankrupted Saudi Arabia. It took its toll on U.S. producers as well, as many were forced into bankruptcy despite making significant progress on efficiency and cost cutting.


With 2019 underway, OPEC, along with Russia, agreed to remove 1.2 million barrels per day off the market for the first six months of the year.  Early reports on OPEC compliance to the agreed upon production cuts is overwhelming at a time when there are new questions about how shale oil producers are faring after this recent oil price drop.

Private forecasters are showing that there are major cuts in Saudi exports and even signs that OPEC production is falling sharply. Bloomberg News confirmed that by reporting “observed crude exports from Saudi Arabia fell to 7.253 million barrels per day in December on lower flows to the U.S. and China.” Furthermore, other private trackers believe  that the drop may be the biggest in exports since Bloomberg began tracking shipments in early 2017.  Oil saw another boost after Bloomberg reported that OPEC oil production had the biggest monthly drop in two years falling by 530,000 barrels a day to 32.6 million a day last month. It’s the sharpest pullback since January 2017.

Rewind to 2017, there was talk that shale oil producers would make up the difference and the cut would not matter, but that was proven wrong. This time expect the same because it is likely that shale oil producers may have to cut back as the sharp price drop has put them in a bad position. The Wall Street Journal pointed out that, even now, some shale oil wells are not producing as much oil as expected. This coupled with a large declining production rate in shale swells means that they need capital to keep drilling to keep those record production numbers moving higher. “Two-thirds of projections made by the fracking companies between 2014 and 2017 in America’s four hottest drilling regions appear to have been overly optimistic, according to the analysis of some 16,000 wells operated by 29 of the biggest producers in oil basins in Texas and North Dakota. Collectively, the companies that made projections are on track to pump nearly 10% less oil and gas than they forecast for those areas, according to the analysis of data from Rystad Energy AS, an energy consulting firm. That is the equivalent of almost one billion barrels of oil and gas over 30 years, worth more than $30 billion at current prices. Some companies are off track by more than 50% in certain regions” the Journal reported.

“While U.S. output rose to an all-time high of 11.5 million barrels a day, shaking up the geopolitical balance by putting U.S. production on par with Saudi Arabia and Russia. The Journal’s findings suggest current production levels may be hard to sustain without greater spending, because operators will have to drill more wells to meet growth targets. Yet shale drillers, most of whom have yet to consistently make money, are under pressure to cut spending in the face of a 40% crude-oil price decline since October.”

Of course, none of this matters if we see a prolonged slowdown in the global economy, Demand may indeed turn out to be the great equalizer. Yet if growth comes back, say if we get a China trade deal or if they ever reopen the U.S. government, we will most likely see a very tight market in the new year. The OPEC cuts will lead to a big drawdown in supply and shale oil producers will find it hard to match OPEC and demand growth barrel for barrel.

OPEC, aligned with Russia, still control over 50 percent of the world’s supply and despite the best efforts of shale, they won’t be able to replace the reduced oil output from the Russia and OPEC cuts.

Phil Flynn is senior energy analyst at The PRICE Futures Group and a Fox Business Network contributor. He is one of the world's leading market analysts, providing individual investors, professional traders, and institutions with up-to-the-minute investment and risk management insight into global petroleum, gasoline, and energy markets. His precise and timely forecasts have come to be in great demand by industry and media worldwide and his impressive career goes back almost three decades, gaining attention with his market calls and energetic personality as writer of The Energy Report.