Shale productivity and swing production…

“We have just started to get into the manufacturing and harvest mode of the shale revolution,”

Concho Chief Executive Officer Tim Leach

I keep going on about productivity because as Krugman says, it’s not everything, but it’s nearly everything. This article from Bloomberg highlights how Encana is pushing the technical boundaries of shale further with a new Cube process (pictured above).

Basically, you do a whole pile of layers at the same time. I have no idea if it will be successful or not, but these companies will learn a lot from this and not all this knowledge will be wasted even if the process itself is a failure. Economists talk of dynamic capabilities, where companies build a knowledge base, in a path dependent manner,  by trying to do new things; and this is a classic case. This article from 1994 is as relevant now to this as it was to the semiconductor industry which led to the original observations (remember Moore’s Law).

Which is why Encana can show this:

Encana Productivity

On a per dollar basis no one in offshore is showing those sort of gains. A large part of the cost reductions have come as equity in assets has been wiped out through oversupply. This is a genuine ‘learning-by-doing’ productivity gain. I have consistently said that once the US economy starts to turn this into a manufacturing industry there will be a consistent reduction in per unit costs, it is the raison d’etre of American capitalism (which to be clear I don’t think is an amazingly astute observation).

I mentioned the other day I believe shale production was a genuine swing producer and looked for some data on this. And I found it:

The simulations show that the U.S. supply response is much larger now due to the shale revolution. Given a price rise to $80 per barrel, U.S. oil production could rise by 0.5 million barrels per day in 6 months, 1.2 million in 1 year, 2 million in 2 years, and 3 million in 5 years. Nonetheless, it takes many months before a substantial portion of the full supply response is online, longer than the 30 to 90 days typically associated with the role of “swing producer” such as Saudi Arabia.

The thing is this research used well data from 2010-2015, so if you look at the productivity gains over the last two years then shale is even more responsive. A comparison with offshore, given cycle times and unit costs are so different, would be interesting, but methodologically challenging I think. The point is shale is undeniably a swing producer and with a much lower capital commitment (i.e. low CapEx/ high OpEx) than the industry has had before and gives E&P companies an optionality that offshore doesn’t (but not the high flow/low lift costs advanatges of offshore).

This is where the US economy is so good. Look at this data from Precision Drilling Corp:

PDC Productivity

These cummulative gains are huge. Day-in, day-out, this is an economy, and in this case an energy production system, focused on driving down unit costs. I get you can run into limits, but we appear to be someway off them here. As I say, I think it takes a brave person to bet against this, and from an investors point-of-view such productivity gains are enormously attractive.

Venezuela… a human tragedy…

Arguably an underdiscussed issue in the rise in the price of oil has been declining Venezuelan production (from c. 3.5m barrels a day to 1.75m). There is a great article ‘Hell of a Fiesta‘ in the latest New York Review of Books if you want a very readable account of how Venezuela got to this point. As always with these situations there is theft on an industrial scale, incompetence, idealology, political corruption, and just general stupidity:

Between 1999 and 2017 PDVSA earned $635 billion in cash and produced an additional $406 billion worth of oil, which it used to subsidize the internal market (gasoline in Venezuela is virtually free) and reward countries seen as politically sympathetic to the regime. What happened to the rest of this money? Jorge Giordani, a former minister of planning who left the government in 2014, estimates that $300 billion was simply stolen. Another portion was wasted on unfinished pharaonic projects (rail lines, bridges started but left incomplete), purchases of Russian military equipment, opaque and unaccountable multibillion-dollar public entities such as the Venezuelan Economic and Social Development Bank and the Fund for National Development, costly and unproductive expropriations, wasteful imports to compensate for the lack of internal production, purely sumptuary imports (500,000 automobiles in 2006 alone), and excessive growth in public employment. From 1998 to 2013, consumption grew by 60 percent but production barely increased.

Read the whole thing.

The drawdown on offshore… My views on shale and offshore…

A friend asked me this week what my view on the graph above was (courtesy of Sparebank1  Markets) given my views on shale? I have been pretty consistent here that shale isn’t going to displace offshore, but it doesn’t need to in order to have a major impact on the economics offshore: It just has to take demand at the margin.

There are many graphs floating around like the one above. The Seadrill restructuring presentation contains this:

Seadrill offshore gap.png

Oceaneering had this graph recently:

Oceaneering Deepwater Demand.png

Ocean Rig has this one (while I agree with the headline the logic and data supporting this don’t make sense to me as the sanctioning replacement ratio has been historically over 100% for meaningful periods so a drawdown as firms pay down debt in a low price environment is logical):

Ocean Rig Industry Demand.png

You get the idea.

Schlumberger recently put the scale of shale production into perspective:

2017 Oil Supply

So to be clear: all tight oil had to do was add ~5% to the global supply and it has turned the entire offshore industry into a financial mess. Now it isn’t a strict causation, offshore has suffered a severe financial bubble based on oversupply as well as a demand crisis driven by the speed of change in the shale industry, but still it shows how finely balanced things were.

And indeed if you look at all the stories of hope and recovery that aim to recreate the world cast in a 2013 shadow they all profess unrealistically high utilisation and day rates at their core. The reason is obvious: the industry from 2007 was built on very high day rate levels and utilisation figues and any small change in those realities, given the very high fixed cost base, causes financial chaos.

A few percentage points in utilisation and day rates is all it takes to massively swing profitability in such a high fixed cost industry. Economic change happens at the margins.

Look at this chart from HugeStadSea which sums up the dominant thinking in the market (Q2 2017):

HSS Market Assumptions

Back to a cheeky 90% utilisation from 60%. Nice… what could go wrong?

Seadrill has the same:

Seadrill RP day rates

Everyone has the same story. But the problem is unless everyone is at very high utiilisation then day rates won’t pick up as the economic incentive for anyone with idle tonnage is to bid it cheap. Rowan in their latest results stated that they believed the market had to hit 85% utilisation before day rates improved.

So shale has an importance on the economics of offshore far beyond it’s output in the physical market displacing offshore oil as a source of supply. Shale only needs to reduce the utilisation of the offshore fleet by a few percentage points and that fundamentally changes the economics of rig and vessel companies. Seadrill, Solstad, Bibby, Technip DOF, in fact EVERYONE in the industry, is a completely different financial proposition at 51% utilisation compared to 91% with concomittant increases (or decreases) in day rates.

You also get an idea how large the investment in shale has been (Source: Schlumberger) since 2008:

Shale CapEx.png

25% investment since 2008 has gone into tight oil and it has seen productivity improvements like this (although the presentation highlights these rates are slowing):

Shale productivity.png

So I repeat again that that shale will not displace offshore as a source of supply. But it doesn’t need to in order to completely upset the economic structure of the offshore industry by lowering the amount of marginal demand generated where offshore service companies made profits above their fixed costs. By that I mean if your rig/vessel covered its costs and overheads on 85% utilisation and profits came after that (i.e. at 86% utilisation and above you started to be profitable), and the impact of tight oil is such that you only ever get to 85% for ever, then shale will have managed to removed excess profitability from the industry by ensuring a drop in demand at the margin. All shale needs to do is meaningfully alter the global fleet utilisation, and win a significant amount of E&P CapEx share, both goals shale has achieved, to have a massive impact on the offshore industry.

In economic terms this is what looks likely to happen:


The Demand (for offshore services) = the extra unit of revenue firms get for selling (Marginal Revenue) which matches the point where the extra costs of supply (Marginal Cost + Average Total Costs) balance. So yes, there will be more work, and assets may well be busier than they are now, but it could be just enough to keep everyone in the industry cash flow positive but making zero economic profit. I am not saying there won’t be accounting profits, that all firms will all be loss making, and all shares will go to zero, but I am saying firms will find it very hard to earn returns above their cost of capital.

The one prediction I will make is that any business model in this industry that just relies on an increase in day rates and utilisation is doomed unless it has a massive cash pile (because getting there is going to take a very long time) or you are buying assets at distress prices. But most of the distress investors have moved far too early and there is so much money floating around from these funds I think the distress funds are killing the price discovery mechanism in this market.

It is clear that the quantative deployment of capital in large E&P companies will have a significant portion focued on tight oil as well as offshore. A few percentage points, that could go either way in many companies, collectively have a huge impact on the global offshore fleet utilisation (and therefore dayrates) and that is the core impact shale has.

Shale watch and American Exceptionalism…

A good article in the FT today (behind a paywall) showing how US shale producers are tapping capital markets as the oil price rises.  This reinforces again the scale of industrial transformation taking place in the US:

Companies in the sector have raised just under $60bn in bond sales so far this year, already a 28 per cent jump from 2016, according to Dealogic. Over the past three weeks, Whiting Petroleum, Continental Resources and Endeavor Energy Resources have each raised $1bn in debt. The bond sales have helped finance increased activity in US shale reserves. The number of rigs drilling the horizontal wells used for shale oil production has more than doubled from its low of 248 in May last year to 652 last week, according to Baker Hughes, the oilfield services group controlled by General Electric.

As the graphic above the title makes clear there is a clearly going to be another year of shale oil output increases in the US. It is a story of capital markets keeping pace, and helping drive, innovation in production. This is now a mass production story and is an economic model at which the US economy excels that economic historians refer to as “American Exceptionalism’ (see here and here if you are interested). American Exceptionalism is based on rich resource endowments and a large domestic market that allow it to produce extraordinary economies of scale. This becomes a virtuous circle, or a “positive feedback loop”, that constantly reduces unit costs and increases output per unit:

Salter Cycle.png

For all those naysayers of shale these charts from the recent Chevron Q3 results make clear that this is no ephemeral phenomena:

Production Efficiency is Increasing:

Chevron Permian Production Q3.png

As are financial returns:

Chevron Permian Returns Q3 2017.png

That is why Chevron, along with BP, Shell, and a host of of E&P companies are increasing their capital allocation to shale. In Chevron’s case 75% of CapEx spend is going on “short-cycle/ brownfield” or the existing commitments to Gorgon/ Wheatsone. Again I emphasise not only the changing nature of the CapEx but the size of the drop from 2014:

Chevron C&E.png

$20bn here and there and pretty soon you are talking real money.

It is clear the US economy can mobilise vast sums of capital to reach companies that are innovating and driving down unit costs.

Offshore is still competitive on a cost basis as this Woodmac graph from Chevron shows:

Woodmac cost base.png

But I have a feeling the shale costs are held as constant in this model without a productivity improvement factored in. A 5% compound productivity improvement over 10 years, not unrealistic in a manufacturing industry and way below current trends, would see a 62% reduction in constant costs. Offshore is simply unable at the moment to offer that sort of productivity increase. Large deepwater fields clearly have the potential to provide a baseload of high-flow, low-lift cost fields, but marginal developments compared to shale look likely to increase in economic difficulty. I know the offshore industry is making a major commitment to standardisation, it needs to, its future without the ability to drop unit costs or raise output per dollar invested will be very hard as only those fields so large as to justify one-off design will be viable against the US (and global) shale industry, or when it runs into volume constraints.

Subsea 7 and Conoco Phillips… industry bellwethers…

[N]othing can have value without being an object of utility.

Karl Marx

[I couldn’t agree more with the philosophy outlined in the Conoco Phillips graphic in the header].

A stark contrast in the fortunes of two companies reporting numbers yesterday and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that an E&P company (Conoco Phillips) is benefitting from a higher oil price while an offshore contractor (Subsea 7) is suffering from lower committed offshore spending. But I think it’s worth delving into a little deeper because the scale of the changes taking place in investment terms I think provide a note of guidance for how the future of the industry will look.

CP makes an excellent E&P company to use as an example. In 2015 CP announced they were giving up deepwater exploration but not deepwater production. All economic change occurs at the margin, the change in preferences of different actors in the economy melding into demand and supply curves which intersect at equilibrium points: in this case the decision to invest in deepwater production, or not, depending on market conditions. CP looks to be a hard task master in this regard: based on the statements and actions they have taken if CP decides to invest in offshore production others will as well.

I start with CP because E&P demand for offshore services is obviously crucial. Firstly, and this is not an original thought, the entire tone of this presentation (Q3 2017) is geared to financial returns to shareholders (you should actually read the whole thing to sense this) at the expense of production growth. Just as Shell, and other E&P companies have done, there is a signalling effect that this is a company that will not turn an oil price rise into a feast of mega-growth projects:

CP Priorities

The whole focus is being able to pay dividends even at a $40 per barrel price, gone are the 2013 days of boasting about reserve replacement ratios in excess of 170%. CP helpfully shows that this focus has helped them outperform their peer group: Executive level pay generally includes a link to performance against a defined peer group, if other E&P managers start losing bonuses by not being as disciplined on returning money to shareholders as CP, and their share price appreciation is less, their strategy will change extremely quickly. But in reality all the big companies reporting now are making “credible commitments” to return any excess cash to shareholders and focus on demand increases through short cycle production. Just as it would take years to turn investment decisions into projects now so much offshore engieering capability has been turned off, so too it will take a long time to change this investment narrative and performance incentive system in E&P companies that drive offshore demand. Any perceived linear link between an increase in the oil price and an increase in offshore demand is wrong in my view.

COP Works.png

Secondly: CapEx: for the 2018-2020 period CP is guiding sustaining CapEx at $3.5bn per annum and $2.0bn for expansion. Of the $2.0bn expansion $1.2bn is short-cycle unconventional and only $0.5bn for conventional/offshore and $0.3bn for exploration (split evenly between conventionals and short-cycle). To put that in context in 2012, when the offshore industry was going long on boats and rigs based on future demand, CP guided 2013 CapEx at USD $15.8bn! Of that 10% alone ($1.6bn) was for the North Sea and Alaska (i.e. offshore), 26% ($4.2bn) was for short-cycle, 15% ($2.4bn) for offshore Angola and GoM, and another 14% ($2.1bn).

Graphically it works like this: To keep production constant CP will spend $3.5bn

2018-2020 Flat Production.png

The green is entirely offshore. But to increase production:

COP Growth Production.png

The green in the second graph is almost all historic commitments. That is the future of offshore in a microcosm for the largest independent E&P company in the world and historically a major investor in deepwater offshore. The point is, for those bored of the minutiae, that CP have knocked ~$9.5bn off theirCapEx (60%) in 5 years (they have also divested assets so its not a straight relative comparison) and that the portion devoted to offshore is really related to legacy investments only now, not new fields or developments.

Third: productivity. I keep saying this but the productivity improvements look real to me the economist, as opposed to some of the geologists I know, who argue shale is bound fail:

CP Shale Productivity.png

The last line: >50% more wells per rig line! It’s all about productivity and scale and large companies investing in R&D are extracting more for less on a continuous basis from their shale wells. This is becoming a self-reinforcing cycle where they invest, improve, and re-invest. As I say here often: Spencer Dale is right.

This is the link point to Subsea 7, and all the other subsea contractors frankly. Subsea 7 have performed better than most other contractors throughout the downturn (not McDermott), but the issue is backlog and the pace of future work delivery: as CP seeks to please the stockmarket by avoiding all but the most promising of offshore investments (if any), SS7 and others must show huge declines in their order backlogs which de-risk a hugely expensive and specific asset base. I have said before I think you almost need to value subsea contracting companies like a bank: they fund long-term assets with a series of shorter duration contracts of uncertain redemption value, yes they have a much higher equity cushion, but they need it as they are borrowing short from a market to fund long term assets. Certainly smaller contractors are susceptible to “runs”.

In the last quarter SS7 had revenue of ~$1bn but it took in orders of only .5 of that (book-to-bill ratio) in new orders which left it with a backlog of $5.3bn (against liabilies of $2.4bn). At Q4 2013, when companies like CP were spending all their CapEx, SS7 had backlog of $11.8bn (against $3.8bn of liabilities).

Now SS7 is a well managed company and as can be seen they have reduced debt as the downturn continued, continued to return chartered tonnage,  and they have over $1.2bn in cash, so there are no problems in the short-term. But if you were owed money by SS7 I would rather be owed a higher amount backed by nearly 3x backlog than owed a smaller amount by 2x (a declining) backlog. The problem is the pace at which all the contracting companies are eating through their backlog of contracted work that was at a significantly higher margin than the work they are bidding for now. The actual booked backlog number is the only certainty guiding real expectations of future profitability.

It is a function of the SS7 business model that they have an extremely long position in very specialist assets that sap meaningful amounts of money from companies if they are not working as the graph from the FMC Technip results makes clear:

Technip margin erosion.png

The single largest fact in Technip’s declining subsea margin is lower fleet utilization. If Technip and SS7 are expecting poor utilization in 2018 then it is locked in for the rest of the supply chain.

The fact is the huge offshore CapEx pull back and reallocation by the E&P companies is continuing unabated. Offshore allocations may not be declining in real terms any more but E&P companies are making clear to their shareholders that it isn’t going to materially increase either. The offshore fleet built for 2014 isn’t getting a reprieve from the Oil Price Fairy, the gift from that fairytale should it come true for the E&P companies will be given to shareholders, who after the volatility they have suffered in recent years feel they are owed higher risk weighted returns. E&P companies are locking in systems and processes that ensure their procurement in the supply chain will systematically lower their per unit production costs for years to come and ensuring that other asset owners get lower returns for their investments is a core part of that.

And it’s not only backlog the SURF business now is declining year-on-year of you look at the Q3 2017 SS7 results:

Q3 2017 BU performance.png

~$50m is a meaningful decline in revenue (6.3%) for SURF alone and the decline in i-tech shows that the maintenance market hasn’t come back either. Both CapEx and OpEx work remain under huge margin pressure and in the maintenance market the smaller ROV companies with vessel alliances are all mutually killing any chance of anyone making money until a significant amount of capacity leaves the market. The point of reinforcing this is that it is clear that the E&P companies do not view higher prices the start of a relaxation of cost controls: this is the new environment for offshore contractors.

Subsea maintenance costs involving vessels are time and capital intensive. Internally E&P companies are weighing up whether to invest in maintenance CapEx for offshore assets or new CapEx on short cycle wells. At the margin many like CP are choosing short cycle over offshore and hence the demand curve for offshore is likely to have shifted permanently down and price alone is simply not clearing the market.

I have only used SS7 as they are the purest subsea player in the market. I definitely think it is one of the better managed companies in the industry buut it is impossible to fight industry effects this big when demand is falling, and therefore the size of the market is shrinking, and you have such a high fixed cost base. Not everyone can take market share.

SS7 will be a survivor, and longer term given the technical skills and scale required to compete in this industry I think it likely in the long run they will earn economic profits i.e. profits in excess of their cost of capital, along with the larger SURF contractors excluding Saipem. But they will do this by being brutal with the rest of the supply chain that has gone long on assets and simply doesn’t have the operational capability and balance sheet to dictate similar terms. For everyone below tier one the winter chill is just beginning.

So what does this point to for the future of the industry?

  1. It is a safe bet with all the major E&P companies CapEx locked in for 2018 now and all the OpEx budgets done that demand isn’t going to be materially different from 2017. Slightly higher oil prices may lead to some minor increases in maintenance budgets but nothing that will structurally affect the market
  2. A smaller number of larger offshore projects of disproportionate size and importance fot the larger contractors and industry. Only the largest will have the technical skills and capability to deliver these (hence SS7 ordering a new pipelay vessel). These projects will have higher flow volume and lower lift costs and will be used by E&P majors to underpin base demand
  3. A huge bifurcation in contractor profitability between those capable of delivering projects above and the rest of the industry who will struggle to cover their cost of capital for years
  4. An ROV market that uses surplus vessels and excess equipment equipment that keeps margins at around OpEx for years as vessel owners seek this option for any utilisation
  5. E&P companies consistently seeking to standardise shale production, treat it as a manufacturing process that drives down per unit costs, and increase productivity. Any major offshore CapEx decision will be weighed against the production flexibility of shale
  6. Structurally lower margins in any reocvery cycle for the majority of SURF contractors

“Short-cycle production” could be about to get an economic test…

The dots clearly show that oil prices and oil production are uncorrelated…

Caldara, Dario, Michele Cavallo, and Matteo Iacoviello

Board of Governers of the Federal Reserve System, 2016

The number of US oil rigs went down by 5 last week to 744 rigs, while the number of US gas rigs increased by 4 to 190 rigs. In terms of the large basins, the Permian rig count increased by 6 to 386 rigs, while both the Eagle Ford and Bakken rig counts declined by 3 each to 68 and 49 rigs respectively. 

Baker Hughes Rig Count, Sep 25, 2017


The multi-billion dollar question is: Can shale handle an increse in demand? Closely related: Is shale in a boom that is unsustainable and not generating sufficient cash to reward investors for the massive risk they have taken? Because if the latter is correct the former must be answered in the negative. The above quote is slightly mischevious and merely highlights economic research that supply factors have historically had a far bigger impact on the oil market than demand factors  (whether this is true going forward is not for today).

The NY Fed today reports that it is supply shortages now that are driving the price (and I have no idea about the construction of the model but the reduction in the residual leads me to believe it is broadly accurate), so this is a supply driven event not a demand driven event:

Oil Price Decomp 25 Sep 2017.png

If, as Spencer Dale argues (speech here), we are in the midst of a technical revolution then this is what we would expect. Hostoric levels of inventories should come down because supply is more flexible, these short-term kinks in demand caused by natural or geopolitical events should merely spur an increase in the rig count or a change in OPEC quotas. Other senior BP staff today were on message:

“Rebalancing is already on the way,” Janet Kong, Eastern Hemisphere Chief Executive Officer of integrated supply and trading at BP, said in an interview in Singapore. But OPEC needs “definitely to cut beyond the first quarter [2018]” to bring inventories down and back to historically normal levels, she said…

“If they extend the cuts, yes it’s possible” to achieve $60 a barrel next year, she said. “But it’s hard for me to see that prices will be sustainably higher,” she added.

Or is Permania simply the result of the Federal Reserve flooding the market with liquidity that is allowing an unsustainable production methodology to continue unabated storing up yet another boom and bust cycle? Bloomberg this week published this article on Permania, where the incipient signs of a bubble are showing in labour and infrastructure shortages and the outrageous cost overruns:

Experienced workers are harder and harder to find, and training newbies adds to expenses. The quality of work can suffer, too, erasing efficiency gains. Pruett said Elevation Resources recently had a fracking job that was supposed to take seven days but lasted nine because unschooled roughnecks caused some equipment malfunctions.

By this point, “we’ve given up all of our profit margin,” he said, referring to the industry. “We’re over-capitalized, we’re over-drilling and, if prices don’t rise, we might be facing a double dip in drilling.”

If I was being cynical about offshore production I would note that he was two days over with a rig crew while in the same calender week Seadrill and Oceanrig had collectively disposed of billions of investment capital and will still have the inventory for years. This guy is literally two days out of forecast and he is worried about being over-capitalized (and also that wiped his profit margin? Hardly redolent of a boom?) Offshore drilling companies are like 10 years and 100 rigs out of kilter… Anyway moving swiftly on…

Bloomberg also published this opinion on Anadarko noting:

Late on Wednesday, Anadarko Petroleum Corp., which closed at $44.81 a share, announced plans to buy back up to $2.5 billion of its stock; which is interesting, because almost exactly a year ago, it sold about $2 billion of new stock — at $54.50 apiece.

(That’s pretty clever, they sold stock at $54.5 and are buying it back at $44.8, like Glencore never buy off these people when they are selling, at heart they are traders. More importantly most research suggest companies nearly always overpay when buying stock back so if the oil price keeps creeping up they are going to look very smart indeed.)

But the real point of the story is that capital is slowing up to the E&P sector, well equity anyway no mention of high-yield:

Equity US E&P Sep 2017

Meaning that maybe people are getting sick of being promised “jam tomorrow”. However I can’t help contrasting this with productivity data, Rystad on Friday produced this:

Rystad Shale Improvement Sep 17

So despite the anecdotal evidence on cost increases in the first Bloomberg article the productivity trend is all one way.  And the stats seem clear that a large part of deepwater is at a structural cost disadvantage to shale:

ANZ cost structure 2017

Frac sand used to be c.50% of the consummables of shale, but surprise:

Average sand volumes for each foot of a well drilled fell slightly last quarter for the first time in a year, said exploration and production consultancy Rystad Energy. Volumes are expected to drop a further 2.5 percent per foot in the current quarter over last, Rystad forecast…

Companies including Unimin Corp, U.S. Silica Holdings Inc (SLCA.N), and Hi Crush Partners LP (HCLP.N) are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new mines to address an expected increase in demand.

On Thursday, supplier Smart Sand SND.O reported it shipped less frack sand in the second quarter than it did in the first. Rival Fairmount Santrol Holdings Inc (FMSA.N) forecast flat to slightly higher volumes this quarter over last.

In the last six weeks, shares of U.S. Silica and Hi Crush are both off about 30 percent. Smart Sand is off about 43 percent since June 30…

Some shale producers add chemical diverters, compounds that spread the slurry evenly in a well, and can reduce the amount of sand required. Anadarko Petroleum Corp (APC.N) and Continental Resources Inc (CLR.N) are reducing the distance between fractures to boost oil production. The tighter spacing allows them to extract more crude with less sand.

Technological innovation and scale: Less sand used and increased investment going on that will reduce the unit costs of sand for E&P producers. This is the sort of production that brought you the Model T in the first place and the American economy excels at. Bet against if you want: just remember the widowmaker trade.

Shale is a mass production technique: eventually it will push the cost of production down as it refines the processes associated with it. To be competitive offshore must emulate these constantly increasing cost efficiencies. I have said before that shale won’t be the death of offshore but it will make a new offshore: a bifurcation between more efficient fields, low lift costs, and economies of scale in production that make the “one-off” nature of the infratsructure cost efficient, and smaller, short-cycle E&P of shale (and some onshore conventional).

Offshore is going to be here for a long time, it is simply too important in volume terms not to be. But what a price increase is not going to see is a vast increase in the sanctioning of new offshore projects in the short-term. These will be gradual and provide a strong base of supply, as there longer investment cycle represents, while kinks in short-term demand will be pushed towards short cycle production. Backlog, or lack thereof, remains the single biggest threat to all offshore contractors.

Or this thesis is wrong and I, and to be fair people far cleverer (and more credible) than me, are spectacularly wrong, and a new boom for offshore awaits in the not too distant future…

Friday morning cheer for the bulls… and safe thoughts for those in Houston…

“Give me a one-handed Economist. All my economists say ‘on the one hand…’, then ‘but on the other…”

Harry Truman


As I am off on holiday to Spain I thought I would spread some cheer for the weekend…The Bull case for oil was made by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco yesterday looking at oil demand in China and combining it with The Varian Rule (which I hadn’t heard of either):

A simple way to forecast the future is to look at what rich people have today; middle-income people will have something equivalent in 10 years, and poor people will have it in an additional decade.

The economists from the Federal Reserve conclude what every offshore bull hopes for, even if it is in a delightfully non-commital and unspecified in timeframe:

In particular, if both domestic and foreign oil producers are reluctant to invest now in exploration and development, they may be unable to expand quickly to meet a sharp increase in Chinese demand. If global supply cannot expand fast enough, oil prices will have to rise to balance the market, as they did in the early 2000s.

On the other hand DNB came out with this graph this week:

DNB Offshore Spend 2017e

The point about being “unable” to expand is a good one. Even if the price spiked now the supply chain has laid off so many people in the short term all that will happen is there would be an explosion in wage costs not asset utilisation (and therefore day rates) as projects would take time to wind up. For the supply chain there is no easy solution to the current problems apart from slow deleveraging and the occassional exogenous shock maybe?

To all my friends in Houston I hope all is well and you are hunkered down safely. For the record no one obviously wants an increase in demand generated in such a way.

Hornbeck Hurricane map.png

Source: Hornbeck