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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Opec should invest in shale to really understand the rival 

Shale production is not just another big but comprehensible competitor, its business model is entirely different and the one that members have no grasp on

The chief executive  of the Russian energy major Gazprom, Alexei Miller once described shale as "a well-planned propaganda campaign.” Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP
The chief executive of the Russian energy major Gazprom, Alexei Miller once described shale as "a well-planned propaganda campaign.” Natalia Kolesnikova / AFP

In May, just before the last Opec meeting, an enemy walked into its Vienna headquarters.

Often we can learn more from our enemies than our friends. Mark Papa, the chairman of Centennial Resources and legendary chief executive of the oil company EOG, was there to tell Opec about shale.

The major oil and gas producers have persistently underestimated shale, to their detriment. In 2011, Alexei Miller, the chief executive of the Russian state company Gazprom, commented that “shale gas is a well-planned propaganda campaign” and his deputy called it “a bubble”. Qatar’s oil minister said as late as January 2014: “We do not consider the US shale gas revolution to be a game changer.”

Mr Papa was one of the leading characters in this revolution. Starting in the late 1990s, he built EOG into the United States’ fourth-largest driller, increasing its value almost 2,000 times by developing shale reservoirs in North Dakota and Texas. One of the first to spot the shift in value from shale gas to oil, EOG became renowned for its in-house technology and low production costs. Since retiring, Mr Papa was tempted back to start Centennial Resource Development, investing in Texas’s Permian Basin and turning US$500 million into $2.85 billion in two years.

Since then, Opec has awoken to the threat, but still struggles to understand shale. The production cuts that began at the start of this year have left the oil price exactly where it started and, by April, rising US shale production almost precisely offset Opec’s reduction. So Mr Papa’s expertise was welcome and it is understood that he actually forecast a lower rise in US output this year than Opec’s own analysts. Mohammed Barkindo, the organisation’s secretary general, had already met him and several other shale chief executives in Houston in March.

Talking to experts such as Mr Papa demonstrates a welcome and overdue openness. For too long, Opec’s analysts and officials relied on the reports of fringe sceptics who have repeatedly been proved wrong. But to understand shale fully requires more than occasional meetings.

Shale production is not just another big but comprehensible competitor, like Brazilian deepwater oil or Canadian oil sands with discrete projects with long lead-times. Its business model is entirely different: short-term flexibility; relentless improvement in costs and efficiency; a continual inflow of finance; and hedging to lock in acceptable oil prices for one or two years while wells recover their costs.

The former Shell chairman Sir Mark Moody-Stuart and the former BG and Schlumberger chairman Andrew Gould sit on the Saudi Aramco board - but neither are shale experts. Major oil-producing countries could bring in practitioners such as Mr Papa into advisory roles. But the best way to learn is to do the thing. Opec countries, via their national oil companies or strategic investment vehicles, can enter North American shale plays.

Other national oil companies have bought into North American shale assets – India’s Gail, the Korea National Oil Corporation, China National Offshore Oil Corporation, and Kuwait Foreign Petroleum Exploration Company (Kufpec) in Canada. But, with exception of Kuwait, these are not Opec companies. Qatar Petroleum’s joint venture for liquefied natural gas with ExxonMobil does not include the upstream – the production of oil and gas. Abu Dhabi National Energy Company (Taqa) is present in Canada but in conventional, not shale, fields. Kufpec and Mubadala are natural investors for such a venture, but Adnoc or Aramco could also take part.

So why should Opec countries invest in shale? They should not sink huge sums, nor expect to earn stellar returns, in a very competitive business but they should not aim to lose money either. The main benefits would be threefold: to hedge; to learn; and to apply.

The hedge refers to betting on the future progress of shale. If shale production cannot keep up with demand, and prices rise, Opec investors will benefit from gains in both domestic oil revenues and their shale earnings. If, on the other hand, as currently seems the case, shale output grows rapidly and caps prices from rising much above $50 a barrel, the shale investors will at least gain from greater production volumes.

Learning is essential for big oil-producing countries to plot their response to shale. There is no substitute for being involved in the day-to-day hurlyburly of the fields in Texas or North Dakota - to be able to judge how quickly costs are rising or falling, how technology is advancing, and whether shale companies are really profitable and financially sustainable. That in turn would inform them on whether to try to ride out the current slump, whether to meet it with modest production cuts as now, or to boost output to bring down prices below shale’s break-even.

The third angle is application. Opec members - Abu Dhabi, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela - have shale resources of their own. For those whose oil production is in decline, these are worth developing. Even for those with abundant low-cost conventional oil, the techniques of shale production are still applicable to their reservoirs. Long horizontal wells and hydraulic fracturing has led the boom in the Permian Basin, whose carbonate reservoirs are not so different from many in the Middle East.

Shale is a novel challenge for all conventional oil producers. By getting more deeply involved, they would be better able to plot their strategies. No doubt Mr Papa or his peers would lend a few tips on where to drill.

Robin M Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis