Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi may be one of the most powerful individuals in the global oil industry. After all, as the top oil official in arguably the world’s most influential oil-producing country, he has enormous influence.
But for all his power, is he the most ingenious? That question arises from the release of two reports on the current state of the oil industry that look at whether or not OPEC’s strategy of forcing US shale to cut back is succeeding.
The first, issued on May 12 by OPEC, says, in essence, that Saudi Arabia’s effort to keep its own oil production at near-record highs is succeeding in wresting market share back from US producers of shale oil, also called “light, tight oil” (LTO). The second, issued a day later by the International Energy Agency (IEA), agrees, but only up to a point.
“In the supposed standoff between OPEC and U.S. light tight oil (LTO), LTO appears to have blinked,” the IEA reported. “Following months of cost cutting and a 60 percent plunge in the U.S. rig count, the relentless rise in U.S. supply seems to be finally abating.”
But the report from the Paris-based IEA, which advises 29 industrialized countries on energy policy, also pointed to a rebound in oil prices that could benefit US shale producers.
As both the OPEC and IEA reports point out, the decline in US shale oil output has somewhat reduced the oil glut and led oil prices to rally up to about $65 per barrel. And the IEA adds that this brings LTO back above the threshold where its production becomes profitable again.
But that, evidently, isn’t good enough for both domestic and foreign shale drillers in the United States, and this is where ingenuity enters the picture. “Several large LTO producers have been boasting of achieving large reductions in production costs in recent weeks,” the report said.
For example, Statoil, Norway’s huge state-owned energy company, is trying out new techniques of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Texas’ Eagle Ford shale field. They include using different grades of sand to mix with water and chemicals, and drilling at varying depths, to increase oil yields.
“There’s a proverb in Norway that says necessity teaches the naked woman how to knit,” Bjorn Otto Sverdrup, a Statoil vice president, told The New York Times, during a tour of the company's shale operations in Kennedy, Texas.
Evidently this mother of invention is showing some success. Statoil may have cut the number of its rigs at Eagle Ford from three to two in 2014, but its production from the shale field is up by one-third. The new fracking method has also cut the cost of extraction from an average of $4.5 million per well to $3.5 million, in part because it’s been able to reduce drilling time from an average of 21 days to 17.
Against this backdrop, then, it’s not surprising that the IEA isn’t so sure that OPEC in general, and al-Naimi in particular, have the upper hand – yet. “It would thus be premature to suggest that OPEC has won the battle for market share,” the agency’s report said. “The battle, rather, has just started.”