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Time is almost up for US shale industry

A top US shale executive said that it may only be the Midland basin in the Permian that can grow production beyond 2025.

Aside from Midland, every other shale basin may be on borrowed time, with the best acreage already picked over and oil prices languishing below $60 per barrel.

It’s been a brutal two weeks for the US shale industry, clobbered by a series of poor financial results from several drillers at a time when oil prices more broadly are in freefall. The latest was Oasis Petroleum, which plunged by more than 30 percent on Wednesday, after the company said it would probably spend a little bit more than previously expected, and might produce a little bit less.

Last week, Concho Resources admitted that one of its more promising experiments, a 23-well project, suffered from poor results because the wells were packed too closely together. The company’s share price plunged by more than 22 percent because investors realized that perhaps Concho Resources, and other shale drillers like it, may not be able to produce as much oil as expected from a given level of spending.

But the hits keep on coming. President Trump announced a new round of tariffs, scheduled to take effect in September. China responded by digging in, and letting its currency depreciate, which set off a global panic about currency wars and a slowing economy. Oil entered a bear market, down more than 20 percent from a recent peak in April. US energy stocks across the board fell to new depths.

Prices recovered on Thursday on rumors about more OPEC+ cuts, but that has done little to dispel concerns about US shale.

The industry faces both medium and long-term challenges as well. Pioneer Natural Resources, one of the larger producers in the Permian and widely considered one of the stronger companies, warned about the future of drilling.

“Rig count and Tier 1 acreage is being exhausted at a very quick rate,” Pioneer President and CEO Scott Sheffield told analysts on an earnings call on August 6, referring to the Delaware basin, which has seen a surge of activity most recently.

“I am lowering my expectations of the Permian, reaching 1 million barrels of oil per day growth annually as it did in 2018,” Sheffield said. “I’m still convinced the Permian will reach 8 million barrels a day at a much slower pace with the Midland Basin as the only growing basin in the US past 2025.”

8 million barrels per day is not exactly peanuts. That would amount to another doubling of output compared to today’s levels. But Sheffield said that everywhere outside of the Midland sub-basin within the Permian faces an uncertain future. To be sure, he was arguing that this would enhance Pioneer’s value, since many of its competitors would be knocked out of the market.

“Based on the scarcity, if Midland Basin is the only basin growing past 2025, it will make Pioneer’s properties worth twice as much money or 3x as much money at some point in time over the next 5 to 6 years,” Sheffield said.

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