The real winners of the OPEC output deal: US shale drillers

Workers guide a section of drill pipe into a rack after it was removed from a natural gas well being drilled in the Eagle Ford shale in Karnes County, Texas.
Eddie Seal | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Workers guide a section of drill pipe into a rack after it was removed from a natural gas well being drilled in the Eagle Ford shale in Karnes County, Texas.

There's joy in the U.S. oil patch, as other oil-producing countries joined OPEC in a deal to slash crude production.

U.S. crude futures soared Monday, rallying 3.2 percent at midday to $53.17 per barrel, and energy stocks also jumped. The S&P energy sector was up 1.4 percent following the deal, which OPEC pushed hard to get in an effort to end a global oil glut and boost prices.

"In the sheiks versus shale fight, score one for the shale patch," said Michael Cohen, head of energy commodities research at Barclays. "It's not really that simple, but clearly the Saudis have stuff to gain from this. ... They have things they need to achieve, from their social constraints and things get worse when prices get low. It's not a zero sum for sheiks versus shale, but shale certainly is the biggest winner. They were looking at a picture where prices could have conceivably been $40 to $45 for another year."

There are already signs of life in shale sector, with rigs beginning to come back on line at a faster pace. Just the discussions among global oil producers helped lift prices, well before they reached a deal. According to Baker Hughes, the industry added 21 rigs last week to 498, the highest level since January but still well below the 2014 high of 1,600.

"Shale is coming back. Shale will come back with a vengeance. Shale, in my view is a technology in its earliest stages. We are not in the seventh or eighth inning. We are probably in the third. The recovery rate in shale is still low. What we get out of this resource with today's technology is only 5 percent," said Fadel Gheit, energy industry analyst at Oppenheimer.

U.S. oil production topped out at 9.6 million barrels a day in 2015, but it has stabilized at about 8.5 million recently.

Cohen said the industry is likely to add 250,000 to 300,000 barrels a day of production in 2017, but it won't return to 2015 levels until later on. "I think we'll set the stage for it in 2017, if prices remain in the $55 to $60 range on average or higher," he said. He expects West Texas Intermediate oil to be at $55/$56 per barrel in 2017.

Over the weekend, Russia and several other big non-OPEC producers agreed to trim production by 558,000 barrels a day, on top of the 1.2 million barrels a day OPEC said it would cut.

"Prices will go higher but not in a straight line. It never does, and it never will," said Gheit. He said OPEC and the other producers are unlikely to stick to their promised cuts for more than a few months. The deal also does not address the hundreds of millions of barrels in inventories.

The risk to prices is that OPEC's deal is not adhered to, and producers add to production, keeping the supply high without any pickup in demand.

Francisco Blanch, of Bank of America Merrill Lynch said he expects producers to stick to the OPEC deal, and that should result in a $70 oil price next year. He expects the U.S. to add 600,000 barrels a day of additional production from current levels, by the end of next year.

"We should be under no illusion that this is a gift to all producers. I think it's a gift to some producers. It's something OPEC is doing for itself. While it's benefiting certain sections of the U.S. shale market, it's not going to benefit everyone. I think higher cost producers still won't be able to make ends meet," said Blanch, head of global commodities and derivatives research.

But prices should remain high enough to help the U.S. industry, which was the upstart that helped create a global glut in the first place.

The U.S. industry surprised the world with the magnitude of its output. Two years ago, OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, attempted to stop shale and other high cost producers by abandoning its strategy of controlling output and instead let the market set prices.

That led to a collapse in prices into the $20s per barrel, resulting in budget pain among the global producers and large losses for oil companies.

"Fifty-dollar oil will put them all back in business," Gheit said of the U.S. drillers. "It is the break-even point which continues to decline."

The election of Donald Trump is also expected to provide some positives for the industry, as he supports reducing regulation and increasing the construction of pipelines.

Cohen agrees the strongest U.S. producers will come back first, while the weaker ones remain constrained by poor financial positions. The latter will have to add production more slowly.

"There's a whole host of other companies that were part of the growth story over the 2013 to 2015 time frame that added a significant amount of volume, and those guys were the ones that were really hurting over the last two years," Cohen said. "I think there's a big question of whether producers will spend outside of cash flow or within cash flows."

Drilling costs dropped dramatically as the industry cut back in response to crashing prices, but as more rigs come back on line, it will be a challenge for producers to manage rising costs. That will be a factor that helps determine how much oil will be produced.

"There's a lag with everything. Just as there was a lag when the industry stopped. It took a year to start to see declines. It's the same thing on the way back up. It's kind of a big ship that isn't going to turn quickly. It's not a light switch," said Cohen. "I think the issue for the Saudis was no one really understands the way shale responds to higher prices. They certainly didn't understand how it responds to lower prices."