Commentary: Could tight oil go global?

  • 2 enero, 2019
  • Resumen:

    "Tight oil production is today a largely US phenomenon. From less than 0.5 mb/d in 2010, production has surged to around 6 mb/d in 2018 and this growth shows little sign of slowing down any time soon. In the most recent World Energy Outlook, tight oil output continues to rise until well into the 2020s in the New Policies Scenario, reaching more than 9 mb/d. As a result, the United States reinforces its position as the world’s largest oil producer, accounting for almost one in every five barrels of production by 2025; it also become a net oil exporter.

    This dramatic turnaround in fortunes has had profound implications for energy markets, and the consequences are also being felt beyond energy, for example in the renaissance of the US petrochemical industry. This example has also led many other countries to ask whether they too could experience a shale revolution.

    So, what are the prospects for tight oil going global?

    One key issue with tight oil production is the sheer number of wells that are needed to reach material levels of production. Production from an individual tight oil well declines very rapidly after it has been completed. If the rate of drilling drops, production is likely to follow suit shortly after. For example, in 2017, around 8 500 tight oil wells were completed in the United States and nearly 70% of these were needed simply to compensate for declines at existing wells. If no new wells had been completed after the end of 2017, we estimate that tight crude oil production would have fallen by around 1.8 mb/d within 12 months and by a further 0.6 mb/d in the next year.

    The eternal tussle between innovation and depletion
    A critical determinant of future production is having a sizeable resource potential. In theory, there are major tight oil resources in multiple countries. The latest assessment estimates that there are around 350 billion tight oil barrels that are technically recoverable outside the United States (triple the amount in the United States).

    However, estimates of resource potential are subject to a huge degree of uncertainty. In some cases, this results in major upward revisions and in other cases to substantial downward revisions. For example, a recent reassessment by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) of the Permian shale play indicated that there were around 20 billion barrels more technically recoverable tight crude oil resources than was previously thought.

    In our modelling, increases in the estimated US tight oil resource potential translate into higher projected production levels. For example, tight oil resources in the WEO-2018 (at about 115 billion barrels) are around 10% greater than in the WEO-2017, and production in 2025 is around 0.9 mb/d higher as a result.

    Many observers expect further upward revisions in US resource estimates in the coming years. These should not be taken for granted, but they would be necessary to meet oil demand in the New Policies Scenario if the US shale industry is to compensate for a continued shortage of new conventional projects elsewhere.

    In the end, as the United States has demonstrated, the only way to prove whether a resource is technically or economically producible is through drilling. A huge theoretical resource potential is no real indication that a shale industry can be successfully developed.

    Tight oil is a relatively new production technique and many of the increases in resources in the United States have stemmed from technological progress. Yet even with continued innovation in the New Policies Scenario many of the most productive areas in the United States start to show signs of depletion by the mid-2020s (with the recoverable resource potential that we assume).

    This means the average well drilled in 2025 is less productive than today and so a larger number of wells need to be completed to maintain or increase production. We estimate that achieving more than 9 mb/d tight crude oil production in the New Policies Scenario in the United States would require around 20 000 new wells to be drilled and completed in 2025. Thereafter, with our current estimate for recoverable resources, production starts to fall gradually."