A lot of hand-wringing — as well as celebrating — has gone on lately about the reported collapse of the shale revolution.
Environmental activists are overjoyed. They see the oil and gas industry getting its comeuppance.
U.S. manufacturers, on the other hand, who have been among the primary beneficiaries of low-cost natural gas, are less sanguine.
For many producers, now deeply in debt, low oil prices — around $50 per barrel — have been a disaster.
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Just a year ago, oil prices topped $100 per barrel and seemed on the verge of jumping much higher — and would have if not for steadily rising U.S. and Saudi production, which coincided with softening demand in China.
The result is a global market awash in oil, with more to come when Iran re-enters the export market.
Some energy experts predict catastrophe for U.S. shale producers. But they’re wrong.
Some shale producers overextended themselves and built production capacity based on $100-per-barrel oil. Some bankruptcies are on the horizon. U.S. output, at least in the near term, might slide. But the industry overall is in far better shape than many believe.
The shale revolution, though not the boom it was a year ago, remains robust.
U.S. crude oil production last year was at its highest level since the early 1980s; natural gas output is similarly setting records. More important, the oil and gas market has been transformed forever.
Since oil prices began falling, most shale producers have responded by embracing hard times, working to make their operations more efficient, renegotiating contracts with service companies (such as Halliburton) and, most significant, cutting production costs and spending on new wells.
Instead of slowing in the face of low oil prices, the rate of innovation seems to be accelerating.
The influx of new technology and the diffusion of “big data” into oil-field operations are generating unprecedented results. Shale oil production, once considered profitable at $80 per barrel or higher, could soon return to profitability at significantly lower prices.
According to a new report from the Manhattan Institute, data-driven innovation could make U.S. shale fields competitive with Saudi production at costs of just $15 to $20 per barrel. While we’re not there yet, some shale producers already have cut their production costs in half.
Industry consensus now says that if oil prices rise above $65 per barrel, U.S. drillers will jump back into action and ramp up production quickly.
What this means is that oil prices, stuck at or above $100 per barrel for five years, have a new, much lower ceiling.
OPEC’s once iron grip on the world price of oil has been weakened. While OPEC can still increase production to drive oil prices down, its ability to cut production to push prices up has been handcuffed.
The days of $100-per-barrel oil may be permanently over. Should rising demand or a supply disruption start pushing prices up, U.S. producers can quickly increase production in response — at $65 per barrel or less.
The Obama administration estimates that lower oil prices will save the average U.S. household $750 this year. That’s not chump change.
While relief at the pump has been slow to create wider economic benefits — Americans are saving more than they once did, perhaps reflecting continued uncertainty about Washington’s other policies — sustained lower oil and gas prices eventually will boost the economy.
Those who believe the shale industry’s days are numbered have underestimated the oil producers’ ability to innovate, cut costs and become more competitive.
Shale production and its profound influence on U.S. energy security, manufacturing costs, gasoline prices and the global oil marketplace are here to stay.
William F. Shughart II, research director of the Independent Institute (www.independent.org), is J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University’s Huntsman School of Business.