The shale productivity revolution in context…

“[W]e can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics”

Robert Solow


A great article in the FT today (behind paywall) on the boom in shale being driven by productivity increases (a near facsimile earlier version appears here). Readers of this blog will notice a consistent theme, as Krugman said, “productivity may not be everything, but in the long run it’s nearly everything”. The importance of this is that the US is turning shale into a manufacturing industry, small incremental improvements day-in, day-out, that cummulatively dramatically lower overall per unit costs:

In 2015, shale oil producers on average used 3,300 tons of sand per well, according to Petronerds, a consultancy. By last year, that had almost doubled to 6,100 tons per well. Delivering that much sand to the well site can require 250 truck movements. Other techniques for shale production have also been refined to increase the amount of oil that can be extracted. Modern rigs can drill faster, further, and more accurately than their predecessors. The process of hydraulic fracturing is being split up into more “stages”, allowing effort to be focused more precisely on oil-bearing rocks.

Innovations using the latest computing and communications technology, including remote operations, are also starting to be used more widely. Schlumberger, the oilfield services group, says that in 2014, 13 per cent of jobs it worked on at US onshore wells were supported by technical experts watching from its Houston campus. By 2017, that was up to 31 per cent.

This coincided with the IEA forecasting that the US will become the world’s largest oil producer by 2023 (graph above). [It is well worth having a look at the 13 slides at the bottom of the page of the IEA link]. Investment remains depressed in all but tight oil and the comment at the bottom of this slide regarding offshore is telling:

IEA Upstream Spending.png

The IEA is worried:

that despite falling costs, additional investment will be needed to spur supply growth after 2020. The oil industry has yet to recover from an unprecedented two-year drop in investment in 2015-2016, and the IEA sees little-to-no increase in upstream spending outside of the United States in 2017 and 2018.

“The United States is set to put its stamp on global oil markets for the next five years,” said Dr. Fatih Birol, the IEA’s Executive Director. “But as we’ve highlighted repeatedly, the weak global investment picture remains a source of concern. More investments will be needed to make up for declining oil fields – the world needs to replace 3 mb/d of declines each year, the equivalent of the North Sea – while also meeting robust demand growth.”

The real questions here revolve around how much capacity is being replaced annually, and it is simply not true that 3mb/d are not being replaced at the moment. The producutivity improvements in shale above are part of the solution. Other questions are what sort of price increases would crimp demand? etc. There appears to be no change in investor expectations that they want E&P companies, certainly large ones, to reduce debt and increase shareholder payouts, and therefore capital projects will remain subdued. There is also a strong feeling in the investment community that reserves can be run down.

Without wishing to sound like a broken record the “Demand Fairy” isn’t saving anyone in offshore. Offshore needs to re-engineer it’s business model to compete. The IEA is clear that this weakness will be felt from 2020 onwards, so even if you accept their reasoning, that is a long time to keep burning OpEx if your business model cannot even breakeven in the current climate.

I view shale as a technological revolution and believe that no economy is better suited to maximising its potential. Perez defines the major economic technical revolutions since 1770 into five categories, and the US is dominant in the last three:

Tech Rev 1770 -2000s.png

Revolution is an overused word. But according to Perez’s definition, that I agree with, the shale industry is a Technological Revolution (TR):

Tech Rev Definition.png

This to me is the most interesting part of economic history, because while there are nuances the broad economic development of industrial patterns are really well understood. A classic article here compares the development of the computer industry to electric dynamo. Like shale it is a story of how US capital markets funded ambitious companies, vast economies of scale, manufacturing efficiency gains, and the slow initial diffusion of producitivity gains (think tight-oil 2007).

How long can this positive productivity feedback loop, where innovations throughout the system positively affect other inputs, continue? A long time I suspect. Shale may not be subject to the same volume effects as the PC industry but it still makes an interesting comparison (Allen):

Computers deflator.png

(For those who can’t remember logarithmic maths from school all the left hand bar of the top graph means is “this is a really big number… so big we have a formula to make it shorter”. And the bottom graph just means that even though the price dropped really quickly a lot of new features were added as well). This is a hallmark of the US economy and a manufacturing industry based on constant productivity improvements.

An earlier, and slightly different technical revolution, can be seen with the invention of Corliss Steam Engine,  which allowed America to break free from the constraints of water power in the 19th century (Rosenberg and Trajtenberg). Like shale this was an energy revolution, one that changed the structure of the US economy and allowed manufacturing and urbanization to begin in earnest. Corliss Steam Engine.png

Everytime I write about shale I want to write something about the incredible economic period of the 1930s: How US mass production techniques, a revolution in both managerial skill and capital formation, led to the creation of the economy that created Victory Ships and transformed the Ford factory at Willow Run (YouTube watch this, seriously) into the manufacturer of the B-24 (“the Liberator“), innovations that arguably changed the course of the WWII, and ultimately the post-war global economy. There are surprisingly (and disappointingly) few journal and web references to this, and all are about the mathematics of productivity, when this is really a story to be told at the company level. However, economic development is path dependent and these processes and learnings today are being applied in the shale basins every day, even if unwittingly. (For a broader read about what an incredible period the 1930s was in microeconomic terms this the best I have turned up so far).

So although I don’t understand the individual impact of every innovation listed on this slide I understand where they came from and the process driving this:

Nabors Rig.png

Once upon a time a PSV went for the low-to-mid USD 20ks a day. At the time of writing the BHGE rig count hit 800, the revolution therefore continues…

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