"It's Different This Time?" What Happened To US Oil Drillers During The Last Price War

History may not repeat but it rhymes so loud sometimes that Einstein would be rolling in his repetitively insane grave. As Bloomberg notes, the last time that U.S. oil drillers got caught up in a price war orchestrated by Saudi Arabia, it ended badly for the Americans. "1986 was the big price collapse and the industry did not see it coming,” said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research who has covered the oil sector for 37 years, "it put a lot of them out of business. You just don’t forget it. It’s part of the cultural memory." Think it can't happen again? Think again... consider how levered US Shale drillers are and just what Saudi has to gain from keeping their foot on the US neck... In 1986, the U.S. industry collapsed, triggering almost a quarter-century of production declines, and the Saudis regained their leading role in the world’s oil market.

 

As Bloomberg reports,

In 1986, the Saudis opened the spigot and sparked a four-month, 67 percent plunge that left oil just above $10 a barrel. The U.S. industry collapsed, triggering almost a quarter-century of production declines, and the Saudis regained their leading role in the world’s oil market.

 

So while no one expects the Saudis to ramp up output now like they did then and U.S. shale oil companies are pledging to keep drilling regardless, the memory of that bust looms large for American industry executives on the eve of OPEC’s meeting tomorrow. As the Saudis gather with officials from the 11 other OPEC nations in Vienna, analysts are split on whether the group will cut output to lift prices or leave production unchanged to fight for market share with shale drillers.

 

“1986 was the big price collapse and the industry did not see it coming,” said Michael Lynch, president of Strategic Energy and Economic Research in Wakefield, Massachusetts, who has covered the oil sector for 37 years. “It put a lot of them out of business. You just don’t forget it. It’s part of the cultural memory.”

 

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“Someone has to blink,” said Sarah Emerson, managing principal of ESAI Energy Inc., a consulting company in Wakefield, Massachusetts. “OPEC is saying ‘Does it really have to be us?’”

Saudi Arabia wasn’t the first to blink in 1986

The kingdom had been the world’s swing producer for years, boosting output when prices rose and scaling back when they dropped. As fellow OPEC members pumped more crude, the kingdom’s production fell to 3.175 million barrels a day in 1985 from more than 9 million in 1981, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

 

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In December 1985, Saudi Arabia declared its intention to regain market share and oil prices began to decline, sinking to as low as $10.42 a barrel in March 1986 from a November 1985 peak of $31.72.

 

 

OPEC reached a new production-sharing agreement in December 1986. By then, the damage to U.S. producers had been done. Unemployment in Oklahoma rose to 8.9 percent and in Texas to 9.3 percent, compared with the 7 percent national average. Production in Oklahoma fell 8.3 percent in 1986 and 7.1 percent in Texas, according to the Energy Information Administration.

 

“There was just a flood of equipment on the market,”

 

“The U.S. oil industry is blaming the Saudis for a problem that was created here,” Emerson said. “It’s like a gold rush. Everyone is trying to get as much out of the ground as fast as possible.”

This will not end well... as we explained in detail here

Shrinking revenue will leave less cash to pour into the ground, making some companies vulnerable to a credit crunch. Much of the shale boom is sustained by borrowed money.

 

Total debt for 61 of the U.S.-listed companies in the Bloomberg Intelligence North America Independent E&P Valuation Peers reached $199 billion in the third quarter, up from $184 billion a year ago, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

 

“There’s no doubt that you’ll see a lot of people who are vulnerable, especially the smaller players who don’t have deep pockets, and are already deep into other people’s pockets,” Lynch said. “Some of them are already hurting.”

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And with this morning's US data suggesting that their economy has anything but decoupled, crude prices are tumbling fuirther...