Daily Earth Science Geosphere Repost

Shale oil companies – Victims of their own success

Chesapeake Energy Company was one of the leaders in a shale oil business that boomed over the past several decades. New fracking technology and lucrative oil prices powered the rise of “unconventional resource plays” that exploited the vast U.S. reservoirs of hydrocarbons locked into shale formations. Shale oil companies were so successful at finding and producing new oil and gas reserves that they were victims of their success, and now Chesapeake Energy has filed for bankruptcy.

From a national energy perspective, these resource plays were wildly successful. They increased domestic production and made the USA less dependent on foreign oil. The country consumed 7.5 billion barrels of oil in 2019, and about 4.5 billion barrels were from domestic production. Shale oil accounted for approximately two-thirds of that U.S. production. 

Resource plays were also lucrative for consumers, since the new oil flooded the market and drove down prices. But crude oil is a commodity where prices reflect global supply and demand. If demand increases and supplies remain fixed, then the cost of oil rises. However, when market-demand holds steady and supplies increase, then prices fall. 

Supply and demand set the stage for the shale oil industry to be the architect of its own demise. If oil costs $50 per barrel to produce and sells for $70 per barrel, then the profits flow, and companies invest those profits into extracting even more oil. But if the industry is exceptionally successful in supplying more oil, and supply exceeds demand, then the excess oil causes prices to fall. Once prices fall below $50 per barrel, then the stunning technical success of increasing production turns into devastating financial losses.  

Shale oil versus conventional exploration and production

The economics of conventional oil fields differ significantly from shale oil production. Conventional oil fields often require huge outlays of capital before any production and payback. Geological investigations and engineering studies take years to complete for offshore oil prospects. Then the resulting exploration well costs upward of $100 million in some cases and, even if the well discovers oil, production still is up to a decade away. Because of high facilities and drilling costs, the final economics for an offshore field rely on very high production rates from a limited number of wells.

Shale oil projects incur less cost in drilling and facilities and rely on drilling lots of wells with limited production from each well. A conventional oil field may seek to produce 100 million barrels of oil through 10 wells. However, a shale oil field could require over 300 wells to provide the same amount of oil.

Even the way oil flows from these two types of reservoirs is different. Conventional fields rely on high flow rates to recover sunk costs quickly once production starts. Production rates are very high when the wells start flowing, and then they decline rapidly. Shale formations release their oil slowly, and output is at low but steady rates for many years.

Individual shale wells produce oil for decades, but their economics require a certain threshold price for the duration of that production. When oil supply outstrips demand and prices fall, then shale oil profits take a hit and can even turn negative.

Success brings failure

Oil is currently hovering around $40 per barrel, but the average breakeven price for shale oil projects is $50. The unconventional resource industry managed to leverage fracking technology in unlocking vast oil resources from U.S. shale formations, but it has failed to translate that stunning success into profits. The industry as a whole is suffering economically and rife with bankruptcies (190 since 2010). The current year’s outlook is weak, with projected write-downs of $225 billion in assets.

High debt and low oil prices have taken a toll. The financial pain felt by shale oil companies is due in part to an oversupply of oil and a lessening of demand. Wildcards like the COVID-19 pandemic have hurt, but the industry’s technical success in bringing significantly more oil to the market is a self-inflicted wound that is costing companies dearly.


After a decade of losses for US shale oil, 2020 may be a final reckoning (By Michael J. Coren; Quartz) – https://qz.com/1875583/the-us-shale-oil-industrys-2020-consolidation-and-collapse/  Also:

Whiting Petroleum is just the ‘first domino’ to fall in US shale wipeout, strategist says (By Natasha Turak; CNBC) – https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/02/coronavirus-whiting-petroleum-is-just-the-first-domino-to-fall-in-us-shale-wipeout-strategist-says.html  Also:  

Feature Image: Williston North Dakota Oil Field (Modified) – By Lindsey G – Oil Rig, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44776336

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.