Beginning of the End – Russia and Shale Oil

This is the first in a short series that discusses recent events as they relate to the analysis developed in The Accidental Superpower. Each of these developments — and dozens more — are symptoms of an underlying change the global order.

Part 1: Shale and the Breakdowns to Come

The Russian economy is a mess. The ruble keeps plumbing new lows, lending across the country has all but stopped, sanctions (and counter-sanctions) are raising the specter of Soviet-style goods shortages, and even the Russian government now predicts 2016 will bring with it the worst recession since at least 1998.

 

Many — rightly — see the economic carnage being wrought in Russia as an outcome of the Putin government’s adventures in Ukraine and subsequent economic sanctions against Moscow. But that is only part of the story.

 

In Russia the core issue isn’t so much Ukraine as it is shale. U.S. energy output has skyrocketed and North America has already achieved functional energy independence. The consequent shockwaves through global energy markets are hiving what used to be the largest importing market — the United States — off of the global market. One consequence among many is collapse in oil prices. Russia has never — in any age — managed to maintain a strong economic structure without robust commodity export income. The ruble crash is still only in the very early stages. Cascading defaults are now inevitable.

 

Nor will the carnage be short lived. U.S. shale is – somewhat unbelievably – still in its infancy. The merging of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies is really only a decade old and technological improvement is only now reaching critical mass. As of December 2015 full-cycle break-even costs in the three main U.S. shale oil basins — Bakken, Permian and Eagleford — are for the most part below $45 a barrel. Stunning new technologies are being developed, bundled into packages, and deployed as companies seek to find ways to produce more from fewer wells to save money.

 

And “full-cycle cost” is no longer a good measure of the total cost to drill a well as it includes everything from the drilling rights to the cleanup. As lower energy prices force consolidation, the remaining U.S. shale operators will acquire the single most expensive aspect of their operations — those drilling rights — at steep discounts. The dizzy year-on-year expansion in U.S. oil output is slowing, but it shows few signs of reversing.

US-Production-Crude-Oil

Base Week: September 30, 2005

More broadly, there is not a single oil producer anywhere in the world that has budgeted for an oil price below $50, with most — and most notably, Russia, Iran and Venezuela — requiring prices to be roughly double their current level. Many of these countries’ spending is so high because they have come to rely on petrodollars to fund social programs or military funding that stabilizes their political systems. While it may take some time, civil breakdowns and economic meltdowns are the new normal for a vast raft of commodity-based countries

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