What Is Holding US Oil Production Back?

The US energy sector continues to be an outlier in this bear market, gaining +6.6% last week thanks to riding a rally in crude prices after Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed a series of attacks on Saudi Aramco oil storage facilities.

May Brent crude (CO1:COM) settled +12% at $120.65/bbl while May WTI crude (CL1:COM) closed +10.5% for the week at $113.90/bbl.

The attacks have come at a time when supply risk is higher than it has been in years, with Price Futures Group’s Phil Flynn telling MarketWatch the supply-demand deficit is only going to get worse.

Meanwhile, US natural gas (NG1:COM) soared 15% for the week to $5.571/MMBtu, boosted by bullish sentiment from the news that the US will increase shipments of LNG to Europe in an effort to lower the continent’s dependency on Russian gas.

With the oil and gas markets decidedly bullish, and the Biden administration uncharacteristically encouraging it amid a global energy crisis and sky-high fuel prices, you would think that US producers would be scrambling to make hay while the sun still shines by opening up the oil and gas taps.

However, it appears that it will take a lot more to coax more output from long-suffering US producers.

A recent survey by the Dallas Fed has found that Big Oil intends to grow its median crude production by a mere 6% Y/Y while smaller firms aim to expand theirs by 15%.

But it’s not all about the money this time around: 41% of respondents believe the WTI price between $80 and $99/bbl is enough to boost production growth; an additional 20% believe $100 to $119 is sufficient, while a small portion said $120/bbl or higher. Nearly one-third of the respondents (29%) said growth would not be dependent on the price of oil.

In fact, Conoco Phillips (NYSE:COP) CEO Ryan Lance says oil prices are so high that “we are encroaching upon the area of ​​demand destruction.”

More than half of the respondents have attributed the restraint in growth to investor pressure to maintain capital discipline, indicating that some hard lessons were learned over the past few years.

Increasing costs

Another big reason why Big Oil is only looking to modestly ramp up production is inflation and the resultant rising costs.

According to the report, first-quarter oil and gas business activity is already showing record highs across several indicators. Prices received for services, oilfield service (OFS) companies’ operating margins, and industry labor indicators have all hit new high marks in the Dallas Fed survey’s 6-year history.

Unfortunately, dampening those numbers are record highs in OFS companies’ input costs and exploration and production (E&P) companies’ costs for finding, developing resources, and operating their leases. Costs for OFS and E&P firms have increased for a fifth straight quarter, as did E&P’s lease operating expenses and finding and development costs. A record-high index for input costs was seen for OFS.

“We’re dealing with the same inflation and supply chain every other manufacturer is dealing with in the US You’re seeing double-digit inflation rates across a range of commodities and categories, including land, trucking and chemicals imported from Europe. All those supply chain issues are impacting our ability,” Conoco Phillips Ryan Lance told CNBC earlier this month. Lance says drilling for new oil now will not bring immediate relief to the elevated prices seen around the globe for at least a year.

“We’ve never faced a scenario where we need to grow production, when actually supply chains not only in our industry but every industry in the world [are] being impacted by the pandemic,” Western Petroleum (NYSE:OXY) CEO Vicki Hollub has also told CNBC, saying the industry was “in a really dire situation.”

Another growing problem is labor shortages.

“We have the rigs but can’t find employees. However, oil companies have to understand that oilfield services and, in particular, onshore land drilling contractors have to be paid a deliverable rate to justify the enormous capital cost of running, upgrading and crewing a modern onshore drilling rig. The lack of people to work, and the delivery and cost of pipe, frac sand, cement, etc., are all concerns for our business. It will take quite a bit of time for growth to happen. There is also investor pressure,” said one respondent.

Alex Kimani for Oiprice.com

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