Michael Swartz / February 9, 2022

Is the American Domestic Oil Boom Going Bust?

Shale production has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, and it might not.

While the evidence at the pump would say otherwise, oil companies in several areas of the country are claiming their output will increase markedly this year. Bloomberg News reported that oil analysis firm Lium LLC predicted a “surge” of more than one million barrels a day compared to last year, claiming this “would represent the region’s largest expansion of output since 2018, according to Lium.” More output could help with surging prices and all those “I did that” Joe Biden stickers you keep seeing on your local gas pump. Right?

More specifically, Bloomberg adds: “Private operators, which represent more than a third of U.S. output, are expected to ‘re-boom’ over the next six months as they get ready to complete wells, while the major oil companies — accounting for another 18% of production — have already started growing production. Exxon Mobil Corp. said Tuesday it plans to boost output by 25% this year in the Permian Basin, the biggest U.S. oil-producing region. That comes four days after Chevron Corp. announced it will ramp up its own Permian supplies by 10% from an even larger production base.”

If you just went by that news, you would be led to believe that happy days are here again for the domestic oil industry, particularly those entities who specialize in extracting shale oil from regions like the aforementioned Permian Basin and Eagle Ford Shale field, both in Texas, as well as the Bakken Formation in North Dakota and other locations in Wyoming and Oklahoma. However, energy reporter Collin Eaton at The Wall Street Journal threw a bucket of cold water on that optimism by pointing out the shale boom insofar as continual production increases are concerned may be coming to an end. For one thing, these prime fields aren’t as productive as once predicted. And despite initial projections that the oil shale would last 200 years, Eaton says the current fields in play may be tapped out in just a few decades.

Setting aside the well-documented animus toward fossil fuels exhibited by the current administration from day one, it seems like we’ve been here before. Two years ago, we had a very rough time in the oil patch when per-barrel prices cratered during the pandemic thanks to slack demand and a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia that began in an effort to counter our emerging dominance in the industry under President Donald Trump. Even though demand has returned and prices per barrel have rebounded back to levels last seen in 2015, like many other things in this country, domestic oil production hasn’t recovered to where we were before the Wuhan flu hit.

Yet if we go back about 15 years, the general attitude among “the experts” was that we had hit “peak oil” about 1970 and it was time to embrace renewable energy. Advances in hydraulic fracturing and extraction technology, however, made old oil wells productive again and shale oil economically viable, leading to a restoration of production and boom times for formerly woebegone regions like west Texas and North Dakota — a state that saw a long-term stagnation in population suddenly reversed with the opening of the Bakken field and increased economic prospects.

The oil market will always be there since oil is used for much more than filling up at the gas station, particularly petrochemicals and plastics. Domestic oil production only slowed for the half-century between 1960 and 2010 because it became less expensive for oil companies to extract it overseas and ship it here. Once the costs of production and transport (and the political volatility) increased in those markets while oil demand remained strong, it became economically viable to discover new technology and venues for domestic energy extraction.

So as long as we maintain a reasonably capitalist system — and yes, that’s not a given — the promise is there for yet another evolution in the shale oil industry.

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