The central problem? Formerly flush oil firms, and the workers who provided the manpower behind the boom in places like North Dakota, suddenly find themselves squeezed by the precipitous decline in oil. Although crude prices have staged a recovery, they remain firmly in correction territory. While the boom hasn't completely gone bust yet, companies are retrenching in ways that recall prior years, when oil producers were forced to downsize in the face of swooning oil prices.
"This time we're being brought in ahead of time," said Clifton. "There's a discussion about shutting down this site six months from now and what can we do now to prevent that from happening this time."
He is working on about half a dozen preliminary consulting cases in North Dakota and one in Montana. He also has a couple of security guards stationed at sites in Wyoming and Colorado. "There are a lot of rigs being parked," he said, adding, "Someone's got to sit on them 24 hours a day."
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Clifton could find himself even busier helping companies in the region in coming months. After staging a significant rally since U.S. crude tested the low $40s earlier this year, WTI crude has traded in a narrow range, and there is potential for more downside—Saudi Arabia recently said it plans to raise output to new highs. On Wednesday, U.S. crude settled at $60.27.
The ongoing pressure since oil prices dropped sharply last fall is squeezing drilling operations in North Dakota and the Bakken Formation. The number of active rigs in North Dakota was 77 as of June 12, down from 145 rigs the same day last year. American Eagle Energy, a Colorado firm drilling in the Bakken Formation, filed in May for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Denver.
Still, many players in the region have the strength to withstand the lower prices, according to Wayne Wilson, who specializes in calculating the value of oil and gas assets as managing director with HSSK, a business valuation and litigation consulting firm that has offices in Houston, Dallas and Austin. Shale oil producers that are currently producing should generally be able to survive the next 48 months unless they have an unfavorable debt structure, he said.
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"It's not a situation where you're going to see a drying up, but you're going to see a slowing," explained Wilson.
One thing that is helping many producers is using new technologies to improve the efficiency of their operations and to lower labor costs, he said, adding, "That allows you to reduce some of the associated costs."