Tom Whipple is somehow still managing to beat the peak oil drum at The Falls Church News Press. His latest article ponders when the peak oil crisis so many doomers have been waiting for will finally occur - The Peak Oil Crisis: When?.
For those following the world oil production situation, it has been clear for some time that the only factor keeping global crude output from moving lower is the continuing increase in U.S. shale oil production mostly from Texas and North Dakota. Needless to say once the fabled “peak” comes, oil and gasoline prices are certain to move higher triggering a series of economic events – most of which will not be good for the global economy.
Thus the key question is just how many more months or years will production of U.S. shale oil (more accurately call light tight oil) continue to grow. Many have answers to this question ranging from the “next year or so” on out the middle or end of the next decade. Some forecasts as to time remaining until the “peak” arrives are politically tinged. No politician, business manager, or even investor wants to hear that serious economic problems affecting their lives may be only a few years away. Fortunately for these folks, there are many forecasters available to spin stories about how “technology” will enable US shale oil production to continue on into the dim future of the 2020’s – which most of us really can’t comprehend or plan for.
Usually missing from optimistic estimates for future U.S. shale oil production is any discussion of just how fast production from fracked wells declines. Most fracked wells are adequate or at least economic producers for three years or so, after which their production is so small that they need to be replaced or reworked to keep a meaningful amount of production going. As shale oil production grows larger and larger, more and more wells will have to be drilled and fracked just to keep production level. At some point there will be a cross over between new wells coming on stream and old wells going out of production so output will start to slip. The EIA recently noted that for North Dakota to increase its oil production by 20,000 barrels a day (b/d) next month, it must bring 94,000 b/d of new production online. At Texas’s Eagle Ford basin, it will take 152,000 b/d of new production next month to increase net production by 31,000 b/d.
There is no doubt that the shale oil drilling industry has made many significant technological advances in recent years. Multiple wells are now being drilled from a single drilling pad – foregoing the need to move drilling rigs and setting up all the expensive infrastructure needed to frack shale wells. For a while shale oil drillers were drilling and fracking longer wells which reduced the cost per barrel. Now we hear that drillers are increasing production per well by pumping more fracking materials down each well and some are saying this will be enough to offset any decline in prices. Currently US shale oil production is about 3 million b/d and in June output increased by about 100,000 b/d. About half of US shale oil production comes from North Dakota where winter conditions are so harsh that production has been falling during the winter months.
The two major forecasting agencies, Washington’s EIA and Paris’ IEA, are both more pessimistic than is generally known for they both foresee US shale oil production leveling off as soon as 2016. The reason for this is that drillers will simply run out of new places to drill and frack new wells. While new techniques of extracting more oil from a well are possible, there is need to look closely at the costs of these techniques vs. the potential payoff.
The shale oil situation in Texas is somewhat different than in North Dakota for there you have much better weather and two separate shale oil deposits. The recent growth in Texas’s shale oil production has been much smoother than in storm-prone North Dakota and has been increasing at about 44,000 b/d each month. So far as can be seen from the outside of the industry, production in both states will continue to grow for at least another year or two – but then we will be at 2016.