Monday, March 09, 2015

Viewing US oil output through Drillinginfo’s lens

Perceptions about massive a decline in US oil production currently being put forward with such fervour and the ground reality of an actual one taking place are miles apart; or should we say barrels apart. 

Assuming that a decline in production stateside would start eroding the oil supply glut thereby lending slow but sure support to the oil price is fine. But declarations on the airwaves by some commentators that a North American decline is already here, imminent or not that far off, sound too simplistic at best and daft at worst.

The Oilholic agrees that Baker Hughes rig count, which this blog and countless global commentators rely upon as a harbinger of activity in the sector, has shown a continual decline in operational rigs over recent weeks and months. However, that does not paint a complete picture.

Empirical and anecdotal data from Canada demonstrates that Western Canadians are aiming to do more with less. According to research conducted by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), fewer wells would be dug this year but production will actually rise on an annualised basis over 2015. That’s despite the fact that the Western Canadian Select fell to US$31 per barrel at one point.

There’s a similar story to be told in the US of A, and digital disruptors at Drillinginfo are doing a mighty fine job of narrating it. The Austin, Texas headquartered energy data analytics and SaaS-based decision support technology provider opines that much of the current conversation obsessively intertwines the oil price dip with a decline in activity, bypassing efficiencies of scale and operations achieved by US shale explorers.

“Our conjecture is that an evident investment decline does not imply that production is nose-diving in tandem. Quite the contrary, our research suggests exploration and production firms are 25% more efficient than they were three years ago,” says Tom Morgan, Analyst and Corporate Counsel at Drillinginfo.

It’s not that Drillinginfo is not recording dip in rig counts and new drilling projects coming onstream via its own DI Index. Towards the end of February, its US rig count stood at 1433, while new US oil production dipped 9% on the month before to 525 million barrels per day (bpd). However, if what’s quoted here sounds better than what you’ve heard elsewhere then it most probably is for one simple reason.

“What we put forward is in real-time. Two years ago, we started handing out GPS trackers to operators to latch on to their rigs. It was not easy convincing an old fashioned industry to immediately warm up to what we were attempting to do. It was a long drawn out process but we converted many people around to our viewpoint.

“At present, over 80% of rigs in continental US are reported on daily via Drillinginfo installed GPS units. In return, the participants get free access to our collated data. At this moment in time, not only can I point out each of these rigs via a heat signature (see image from January above left, click to enlarge), but also pinpoint the coordinates for you to locate one, drive there and verify yourself. I’d say our data is 99% accurate based on back testing and reconciling trends with our archives,” Morgan adds.

Drillinginfo also examines the actual spud of a well that's been drilled but not yet completed, as well as permit applications. “The thought process in case of the latter is that if you have applied for a permit to drill, then you are more than likely [if not a 100%] sure of going ahead with it.”

Drillinginfo saw a 24% decline in US permit application between January and February. This shows that investment is slowing down, yet at the same time operational wells are generally on song. With the end of first quarter of this year in sight, the US is still the world’s leading producer in barrels of oil equivalent terms.

Oil production continues to rise, albeit not in incremental volumes noted over the first and second quarters of last year prior to the slump. US producers, or shall we say those producers who can, are strategically lowering operations in less bankable or logistically less connected shale plays, while perking up production elsewhere.

For instance, while the collated production level at Bakken shale plays in North Dakota is declining, production at Eagle Ford shale in Texas has risen to 159,000 bpd; a good 26,000 bpd above levels seen towards the end of last year.  In terms of the type of wells, Drillinginfo sees older vertical wells bear the brunt of the slump, while production at onstream horizontal wells is either holding firm or actually rising a notch or two.

“No one is pretending that market volatility and the oil price slump isn’t worrying. What we are encountering is that shale players are trying to achieve profitability at a price level we could not imagine ten, five or even three years ago because technology has advanced and efficiencies have improved like never before,” Morgan adds.

While pretty reliable, feed-through of information via the Baker Hughes rig count is not real-time but looking backwards based on a telephone and electronic submission format. By that argument, the Oilholic finds what Drillinginfo has to say to be an eye-opener in the current climate, particularly in an American context. 

However, company man Morgan, who has known Drillinginfo's co-founder and CEO Allen Gilmer since both their freshmen years at Rice University back in the 1980s, has a more polished description.

“Today we talk of heat map of rigs, real-time data, rig movement monitoring, type and location of rigs going offline, and much more. I’d say we’re bringing agility via a digital medium to participants in a very traditional business.”

That agility and sense of perspective is something the industry does indeed crave, especially in the current climate. The Oilholic would say what Genscape is bringing to storage monitoring; Drillinginfo is bringing to upstream data analytics. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

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© Gaurav Sharma 2015. Graphic: Map of new US wells drilled in January 2015, and those drilled within the last six months © Drillinginfo, 2015

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