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Capital Flow To The Permian Basin Hasn’t Dried Up; It Has Moved Downstream

headline in Tuesday’s online edition of The Houston Chronicle, “Drillers Choke Off Dollars To Permian Basin Operations,” may have unintentionally caused confusion regarding the current state of play in the country’s most active drilling and oil-producing basin.

The story to which this headline was attached references a report by the firm Wood MacKenzie that discusses how upstream merger-and-acquisition activity in the Permian has trailed off somewhat dramatically in recent months. This is entirely true. As The Chronicle points out, Wood MacKenzie’s data indicates: “Drillers spent $35 billion in West Texas over a nine-month period that ended in early spring. By comparison, the collective value of land deals of the last six months is less than $5 billion.”

Someone at The Chronicle apparently realized that the initial headline was somewhat confusing ― the Wood McKenzie report does not talk about any slowdown in drilling ― because the headline was later changed to read “Rising Costs, Land Prices Have ‘Taken The Edge Off’ Permian Basin.” It was inevitable that the upstream M&A fever that developed in the Permian last summer was bound to eventually slow down. As geographically huge as the Basin is, there is a limit to the amount of acreage within it that could rationally be evaluated to meet acquisition costs that in some deals exceeded $40,000 per acre. So it is not surprising at all that the pace of land and reserves transactions has slowed dramatically.

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The Oil And Gas Situation – New Price, Production, Policy, Pipeline Targets Arise

Some thoughts on the domestic oil and gas situation as we move into May…

More rigs, more jobs, more drilling, but for how much longer…:  As I pointed out at the beginning of April, the U.S. oil and gas industry added more than 200 new active drilling rigs during the first quarter of 2017.  The pace of new rig activation slowed somewhat during April, but the count continued to rise as a total of 46 new rigs came online during the month.  The current U.S. domestic rig count of 870 is more than double the count of 420 at the end of April, 2016.

It will be interesting to see how much longer this upwards trend in the rig count will continue, given the softening oil price.  The corporate upstream companies have now implemented their capital plans for the first half of 2017, and are beginning the process of evaluating how those plans should be adjusted for the second half of the year.  The rising drilling activity and increasing demand for service companies and their products has predictably resulted in corresponding increases in service costs.  One would expect that, combined with a sub-$50 oil price, to result in a leveling off and possibly even a falling rig count for the last two quarters of the year.

But so much of that depends what OPEC does.: Will OPEC extend its current agreement to curtail production, which expires on June 30, or won’t they?  The answer to this question, more than any other single factor, will determine where the price of crude goes, and thus where the U.S. rig count and drilling budgets go for the second half of 2017.

 The 2017 capital budgets for the majors and the large independent producers who drill the great majority of wells in the U.S. were put into place in anticipation of a crude price at or above $50/bbl.  But the price for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) has recently fallen below that level due in large part to uncertainty about where OPEC will head beginning July 1.

 

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Gov. Cuomo Proves Pipeline Politics Aren’t Limited To DAPL

As crude oil from the Bakken region began to flow into the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in mid-April, Reuters carried a story indicating that the largest refiner on the East Coast will no longer be taking delivery of Bakken crude via rail:

“It’s the new reality,” said Taylor Robinson, president of PLG Consulting. “Unless there’s an unforeseen event, like a supply disruption, there will be no economic incentive to rail Bakken to the East Coast.”

Thus, the DAPL has already begun to improve the economics of drilling for and producing oil from the Bakken Shale, whose rig count has begun to rise over the last few months.  And while the aggressive and often-violent protesters who spent half a year opposing the project’s completion would never admit it, DAPL is also already improving the safety of moving Bakken crude out of the basin to be sold and refined.

While rail companies and regulators have moved in recent years to improve the safety aspects of shipping crude by rail following several high-profile incidents, the truth remains that pipelines are far and away the safest means of moving crude oil to market.  Rail will remain a part of the transportation mix for Bakken oil – it represented about 25% of that mix during February of this year – but its market share there will grow smaller in the coming months.  That’s a positive for producers, refiners and the public.

Unfortunately, the good news about oil and gas pipeline safety has apparently not made its way to the governor’s office in Albany , where Andrew Cuomo continues to cost his constituents billions of dollars each year through his efforts to obstruct the building of needed natural gas pipelines in the Empire State.   Gov. Cuomo is of course most famous for orchestrating a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing, a ban that has denied New Yorkers to share in the riches provided to Pennsylvanians, West Virginians and Ohioans by the massive Marcellus Shale resource, which also extends into Southwestern New York.

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That Uncomfortable Moment When The Pipeline Boogeyman Fails To Perform

A couple of weeks back I wrote about the shifting focus of anti-fossil fuel conflict groups in their efforts to impede the nation’s energy development in various parts of the country.  That focus, which since about 2008 had centered on the boogeyman “fracking”, has now shifted to a new, midstream boogeyman in the form of pipelines.

When conflict groups have identified a good boogeyman, they flaunt it at every opportunity, and it becomes a rationale for them and their supporting web-based media outlets for stopping whatever other activities they want to stop. Of course, what they really want to stop is all development of fossil fuels.  Thus, over the last decade, we have seen minor spills of returned fluids from hydraulic fracturing jobs blown up into a reason to halt all drilling in a given basin or state.  Now, we see the same dynamic at work, in which even the smallest event that can (at least seemingly) be attributed to a pipeline forms the rationale for halting all activity in an entire region.

That previous piece focused on an incident involving a natural gas pipeline leak in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, which is operated by Hilcorp, and the manner in which Hilcorp’s efforts to coordinate with regulators to address the issue were distorted by one of those web-based media groups, EcoWatch.  Repairs to that pipeline are underway, with no discernible impacts to surrounding wildlife or the environment, but it placed Hilcorp on these groups’ radar as a target for exploitation.

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The Oil And Gas Situation: The Rigs Just Keep On Coming

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Some thoughts on the domestic oil and gas situation as we move into April…

The rigs just keep on coming…:  The industry activated more than 70 additional drilling rigs during the month of March, bringing the total new rigs activated during the first quarter of 2017 to more than 200.  My “bold” prediction as the year began was that it would take four months, not three, for the U.S. industry to bring that number of new rigs onto the market.  So, ok, I was too timid.

Interestingly, more than a dozen of these newly-active rigs have moved into the Haynesville Shale region, which is experiencing a somewhat surprising resurgence of activity, even in the seemingly interminable weak price market for natural gas.  The play’s abundance of pipeline takeaway capacity and proximity to major export facilities are two of the main reasons for this uptick in activity, as detailed by Forbes contributor Jude Clemente in his piece of March 25.

March’s increase in rigs drilling for oil was also less focused on the Permian Basin than in prior recent months, with other basins like the Eagle Ford, the SCOOP/STACK and the DJ Basin also seeing significant upticks in activity.  How much longer this rising rig count can last is anyone’s guess, but it was a major reason why…

 

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Conflict Groups Find A New Boogeyman – Pipelines

As their decade-long effort to demonize hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” as they like to call it – lost its previous steam over the last couple of years, anti-fossil fuel conflict groups who raise money by stoking public fears related to the oil and gas industry have gradually shifted their main focus over to the pipeline segment of the business.  Encouraged by the temporary victory given them by the Obama Administration related to the Keystone XL pipeline project, these conflict groups have become engaged in protests related to numerous midstream projects in the Northeast, in North Dakota (the Dakota Access Pipeline) and in West Texas (the Trans-Pecos Pipeline).

While their high-profile “wins” to date have been either temporary or, as with the Dakota Access Pipeline, illusory, the conflict industry obviously sees this coordinated attack on the midstream segment as a money-makernevertheless.  Thus, they have chosen to engage in a constantly-increasing number of pipeline-related construction projects and incidents.

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