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Well Productivity Gains Clash with Cost Inflation in U.S. Oil Patch

Crude oil production in the United States is on course to break its previous record this year. That’s despite a federal government that is not the biggest fan of oil and gas, substantial cost inflation, and natural depletion.

At the same time, some within the industry have voiced doubts this rate of production growth—even the slower one we’ve witnessed these past couple of years—could be maintained much longer. But it seems many are willing to try.

“The aggressive growth era of US shale is over,” Pioneer Resources’ founder Scott Sheffield said this year. “The shale model definitely is no longer a swing producer.”

Funnily enough, it was Sheffield again, later in the year, who was among industry executives boasting higher well productivity rates at no additional investment. This increased productivity is likely to have been instrumental in the record U.S. production this year.

Drillers in the shale patch made it clear they were in no rush to splash on new drilling, and, indeed, for most of the year, the weekly changes in drilling rigs have been negative. Yet, the industry still managed to boost production. Thanks to ever-longer laterals in fracked wells and other productivity gains.

These, the Wall Street Journal reports, include better seismic mapping and the use of more fracking fluid. The combination of these factors pushed the 12-month productivity of newly drilled wells 59% higher than the 12-month productivity of wells drilled just five years earlier.

These are certainly some substantial gains. Yet there are doubts if there are no limits to these. The WSJ quotes Enverus’ senior vice president of oilfield services intelligence at Enverus, for instance, as saying that the longer well laterals get, the harder it becomes to service them.

This would suggest this servicing would also become costlier for the well operator, which might make them rethink experimentation in the well-length department. There may also be limits to efficiency gains and the industry may be approaching these, again per the Wall Street Journal.

This year saw higher production despite a decline in drilling rigs. That’s some impressive evidence of efficiency gains. Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on the perspective—efficiency gains are not unlimited. Sooner or later, they will hit a ceiling. According to Enverus; oilfield services intelligence VP, Mark Chapman, the ceiling may have already been hit with drilling speeds at a maximum of 1,400 feet per day.

Yet despite the limits to efficiency gains and challenges such as natural depletion, the U.S. industry looks set to suck out every last drop of oil—even as the U.S. government and others around the world double down on efforts to squeeze the industry. And it will cost them.
The shale boom changed the face of the U.S. oil industry and the global industry, too. Here was a new and quite unexpected swing producer that could rival OPEC in its clout over prices. But the boom, besides advantages, had drawbacks.

The biggest advantage of shale oil wells was that they could start producing in a matter of months. That, however, went hand in hand with faster depletion rates because of the process used to extract the oil. Now, producers are tackling the problem of depletion by changing the way they extract oil from the formation.

Per the Wall Street Journal, some producers are moving from the so-called best-bench development to cube development. The difference between the two, again per the WSJ, resembles using one straw to drink a milkshake versus using several straws simultaneously. The second method, according to its proponents, results in a higher output. The drawback: it has higher upfront costs.

There are other drawbacks, too. Cube development is slower than the best-bench method that jumpstarted the shale boom. And it’s risky, too. Apparently, spacing the “straws”, or the wells, in a cube development project is a highly sensitive task. Spacing them a little too close could compromise the productivity of the whole thing.

This is hardly the best of news, but the very fact that the oil and gas industry is working on new methods of oil extraction is definitely good news. First, it demonstrates that oil and gas companies have no intention of throwing the towel just yet, despite government and investor pressure to join the transition and give up oil (until there’s a shortage, that is.

Second, it proves yet again that while there is demand for a commodity, there will be ways to supply that commodity. The cube development method of oil extraction may be risky and expensive, but if producers are using it, then it must make economic sense, at least theoretically. It likely makes practical sense, too, for the companies that can afford the higher costs because Exxon is one of its big fans in the shale patch.

The boom years may be over, but as these developments suggest, this does not mean U.S. shale is dead or even on its doorstep. As long as there is demand for its product, producers and oilfield service developers will look for and likely find ways to extract as much oil as possible.

By Irina Slav for