The Fed in its last Beige Book made note of the fact that drilling activity in shale production districts remained steady even with a sharp drop in crude prices. North Dakota showed an increase in November, and the Fed said officials there expect production to continue increasing over the next two years.
Citigroup analysts also expect production to rise, and in 2015, it should be in line with the 1 million barrels a day of production growth this year.
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"Production is going to continue to grow. Could we see another million barrels a day of growth next year over this year? We happen to think so," said Edward Morse, global head of commodities research at Citigroup. Morse expects an average Brent crude price of $80 per barrel next year, but if it's lower, he says U.S. oil production could still add 800,000 barrels per day.
The rapid growth of U.S. oil production has helped create a surplus of oil, particularly in the Atlantic Basin, and it has already edged out West African imports the U.S. once relied on.
The expectation is that now with sharply lower prices, some shale wells will no longer be economical, and many that were planned will not be drilled. Already, applications for drilling permits have fallen sharply, down 40 percent to just more than 4,500 in November from October's levels, according to a Reuters report quoting industry data firm Drilling Info.
Fadel Gheit, senior energy analyst at Oppenheimer, said U.S. shale production will keep growing, but the question is how much, and it will be the price that determines it.
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"The lowest will be that production will increase by a half million (barrels a day). The highest will be 1.5 million. I would say 600,000 to 700,000 would not be out of line, and we could even have 1 million barrels a day of production growth. Some of these plays will continue because they are cash cows," he said.
Gheit said there are more than 200 companies drilling U.S. shale, and much of the data on their margins and production levels aren't known. He said the price of West Texas Intermediate could remain in the $70s next year, and conceivably see a much sharper, but temporary drop.
WTI was at about $65.84 per barrel Friday, its lowest close in more than five years and nearly 40 percent below its June peak. The latest leg down came after OPEC last week followed the lead of Saudi Arabia and declined to cut production in order to stabilize prices. Saudi Arabia has said it would not go it alone with production cuts and is aiming instead to hold on to market share during the price slump, while shaking out the weakest producers.
"No matter how low oil prices go, there will be no (shale) production shut in. The cash component (cost) will be, say, $15, $20, $25," Gheit said, noting the expenditure for land and drilling has already been made. "Oil prices will have to go below $30 for some of these wells to be shut in, and even then the owners need the cash to survive. They will milk the cow until the cow drops dead."
Morse said one factor that could keep the U.S. shale industry drilling is that there are a high number of incomplete wells that could easily be turned into productive wells. He estimates that there are thousands of such wells in Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Ohio and Wyoming.
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"There are a very large number of incomplete wells that have been drilled, and they're the cheapest ones to bring on. So, if companies are going to be strapped for cash, the best way to get cash is to complete wells ... the average for that completion is $5 a barrel to complete a well that's already been drilled," he said.
Morse said wells are much more efficient than they were just a few years ago.
"Each well currently being drilled in the main shale plays produces more than 550 barrels a day," he said, noting that it was 150 barrels on average just several years ago. Now those wells run for three months before the decline starts, and costs are much lower, at $35 to $45 per barrel, in the Bakken of North Dakota and Eagle Ford in Texas.
Dominic Haywood, Energy Aspects crude and products analyst, said he expects first half production growth to be strong, but then it could start to slow as the impact of less capital expenditures is felt. But there are some benefits to drillers from falling oil prices.
"I think the key thing is you have to look at with falling prices, you're getting cheaper oil service contracts. If you're getting cheaper oil services contract that's helping the cap ex," said Haywood.
Gheit said the industry has also learned to be more efficient very quickly.
"Only five or six years ago, wells used to take 70, 80, 90 days to compete. Today they take two weeks. That in itself is a huge accomplishment. The same rig instead of drilling one well, can drill four. Companies now know how to drill faster than ever before. They learned it in trial and error. Companies don't need as many rigs to drill as many holes in the ground and that in itself is a cost saving," he said.