Shale Gets Ready to Run

A data dump by the International Energy Agency this weekend indicates that OPEC is enjoying its best compliance showing at least since the 1970s, if not ever. Over 90% of pledged oil production reductions have already materialized, with a few countries – most notably Saudi Arabia – overcutting. All together over the course of the past few months, total OPEC output is down just over 1 million bpd. The past two years of low-ish prices have hit non-OPEC producers as well, forcing reductions in their collective output of another 400kbpd. Stores of both crude and refined products have thus dropped across the world. No wonder oil prices have managed to hold strongly over $50 a barrel of late.

The question now is how positive will the impact upon the American shale industry be? In this there are no good guides. The nature of shale has evolved radically not simply since the industry’s modern inception in 2007 (ish), but even more so since the plunge in the price of crude began in mid-2014.

  • Since then the most productive wells have become multilateral, with multiple horizontal spurs going off every vertical well shaft. Since each of these multilaterals is crafted by a single drill, the rig count watch is utterly irrelevant.
  • Micro-seismic techs are enabling operators to take much — if not all — of the guesswork out of drilling and fracking. Such precision drilling means not only looking at the volume of steel used per well or per barrel of output is immaterial, but also that mass layoffs of rig workers can occur with no reduction in oil production.
  • Water intensity per barrel of output continues to shrink as liquids pits are replaced wholesale by mobile water tanks. Less water usage means less cash flowing through the oil sector, gutting one of the last few “reliable” means of indirectly gauging end-output levels.
All these tech changes (and more) push down the full-cycle break-even cost of oil production, and most certainly steepens the production accelerations for future output. But it isn’t “only” technological innovation that is overhauling the industry. There are other factors in play that will have a much more immediate effect.
  • When prices were low, many operators only fracked minimal bits of their wells to start them up — preferring to wait for a price recovery before fracking them up to full capacity. That time is now, but there is no unified data whatsoever on the size of this “fracklog.”
  • Improved seismic techs enable operators to go back to previous wells and drill additional fairways. Such “indrilling” enables new production into old infrastructure, eliminating the need for new pipes, new leases or new negotiations, while generating new and sustained flows with the newest techs available.

Whereas technological changes impact national output figures over months to years in a sustainable way, these more mechanical characteristics give big one-off increases in weeks to months.

The only potential short-term ointment-fly I see is financing. Nearly all the shale operators who survived the price plunge of the past two years did so at least in part by borrowing. Even with prospects now brightening, many of them will find it difficult to take on yet more debt to expand operations. Yet even here things look surprisingly good. Capital flight out of Japan, China and the Eurozone continues to set new records. Shale bonds grant foreign investors a place to park their cash that is backed both by hard assets and revenue streams.

In my opinion shale’s next surge is going to not just hit much harder, but much sooner, than most expect. And it is likely about to get a lot better.

What do Donald Trump, Brexit, the Iranian Ayatollah, EU dysfunction, Japanese constitutional revisions and Chinese President Xi’s efforts to establish himself as emperor-of-all-he-sees-for-life all have in common? They are all great for the shale sector. Global instability of all stripes means more capital flight. More risk means higher oil prices means more stable American operators. More international recrimination means more interest in commodities both as an asset class and a security blanket.

This doesn’t “merely” mean that the output curve for the shale industry will be steeper now than in 2007-2013, but that adding a fresh million bpd to U.S. oil output in calendar year 2017 is a lazily conservative forecast. Shale isn’t just likely to overwhelm the entirety of OPEC’s cut, but the entirety of the global reduction in output all by itself.

And that’s just the start. By end-2017 all those new techs should have percolated throughout the shale patch. Full-cycle break-even prices for shale are already below $40. Give it a couple more years and $25 will be within reach.

And then the real shale revolution gets started.

As to what that looks like, sorry, but you’ll have to read the book. Check it out at this link.

At the Edge of Disorder

Last week, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump shook the global diplomatic community to its bedrock by throwing the One China policy into doubt, specifically noting, “I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” He expressly linked One China to possible negotiations over the South China Sea and the North Korean nuclear program.

The One China concept is that meaningful, positive relations with the Chinese are predicated on public proclamations that mainland China and island Taiwan are one and the same country, and that Beijing oversees the whole thing. American acceptance of One China is not something that was agreed to lightly, but is instead part of a deeper strategy.

In the aftermath of the Normandy invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, the Americans drew their Western allies and their major colonies together at Bretton Woods to prepare for the post-World War II (WWII) world. Pre-WWII global commerce was fiercely competitive with all countries using all levers of power to maximize their overall strategic position. Trade, finance, culture, employment, and war were all simultaneously tools and vulnerabilities. Successful states/empires would use all of them to maximize their gains in others. One result was the all-against-all nature of pre-1945 international affairs, ultimately leading to WWII.

Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire

At Bretton Woods the Americans changed the nature of the game. From now on the U.S. Navy would guard oceanic commerce for all participants, while the American economy would be opened to all participants. There was, of course, a catch — you had to join the Americans in their Cold War.

As the Cold War took shape new countries were admitted into the Bretton Woods system. Former Axis. Former neutrals. Developing countries. And finally, China. Unsurprisingly, Beijing insisted the Americans adhere to One China. Under Henry Kissinger’s guidance, the United States willingly and knowingly swallowed One China hook, line, and sinker. Bolstered by China, the Bretton Woods system now presented the Soviets with hostility in all directions. It was quite the strategic coup, and contributed heavily to Soviet overextension and eventually, collapse.

Yet the key factor to remember is that Bretton Woods firmly limited how the Americans could pursue trade. American market access was extended to allies for strategic reasons. Anyone could dump products on the American market, so long as they maintained their position in the anti-Soviet wall.

But the Cold War is over. Bretton Woods has outlived America’s strategic needs, and American trade policy is now evolving to serve America’s economic needs. Trump’s statement on One China is (probably) not an off-the-cuff comment, but instead a true pivot away from Bretton Woods and towards a fundamentally new strategic posture. If the American government no longer views trade as a means to an end, but instead an end in its own right, it can and will begin using issues such as trade access, maritime security, and political positions on issues such as One China to cut different deals. That changes the global strategic picture radically.

China is wildly unprepared for such a shift. Everything about the modern Chinese system was designed expressly for the Bretton Woods system. The economy is export-led. Efforts to drive domestic consumption have largely ended in ignoble failure. The economy is driven by an Enronesque flooding of the industrial sector with subsidized capital. Such growth comes at the cost of sustainability and a functional banking system. China’s strategic position is completely dependent upon the United States offering market access and guaranteeing freedom of the seas for China’s merchandise exports and raw material and energy imports. Remove the economic and strategic cover of Bretton Woods, and it all comes crashing down.

Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China

Even mentally the Chinese are not prepared for change. Since the election, the only American that Beijing has reached out to is none other than Henry Kissinger himself, the only statesman the Chinese respect and trust. But while Kissinger remains strategically brilliant, his connections and advice are firmly rooted — critics might say mired in — the Bretton Woods age. Beijing is so in love with its China Rising mantra — again, made possible by Bretton Woods — that it just cannot come to grips with the fact that the Americans might now have other plans.

Or that the Americans hold most of the cards. No surprise that Chinese state media’s response to Trump’s offhand statement could best be described as a seizure.

The Chinese are not alone:

  • Like China, modern Germany was expressly designed to maximize exports to the Bretton Woods system to the point that nearly half of German GDP is export-driven. In fact, the entire EU project relies upon the United States market as well as U.S. military protection for commodity import supply lines. Other countries heavily dependent upon global trade include — but are far from limited to — South, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, the oil producers of the Persian Gulf, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Algeria, South Africa, and Israel. If these countries — or any others dependent upon trade — are going to retain market access and maritime trade opportunities, they will need to offer the Americans something in return.
  • A whole host of countries are utterly dependent upon implicit or explicit U.S. security guarantees. A partial list includes Estonia, Latvia, Kuwait, Lithuania, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Finland, South Korea, Germany, Romania, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Taiwan, Japan, Sweden, Singapore, Croatia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Turkey, and Israel. If these countries are going to retain that strategic cover, they must give the Americans something the Americans find useful.
  • Part and parcel of the Bretton Woods system is the guarding of energy flows, in particular those out of the Persian Gulf. Remove American guarantees and the countries of the Gulf have to resolve their security issues themselves. That endangers energy flows at the point of production, within the Gulf, at the Strait of Hormuz, and even globally as importers must take supply protection into their own hands.

Of course, there is still a lot of wiggle room in all of this. And regardless it won’t all change (or fall apart) overnight. Some relations (like U.S.-Japan) have more ballast. Others (like U.S.-Australia) are so rooted in cultural, strategic, economic, financial, and political fundaments that they’ll likely survive on their own merits. But for every relationship that looks solid, there are a half-dozen others that just don’t make much sense outside of the Cold War rubric.

A few specific calls on the countries that are not likely to make the cut:

  • South Korea is too exposed (and expensive to maintain) for the Americans to continue a deep relationship.
  • The United States has been fighting a war of zero strategic relevance in the Philippines for a half century (anyone remember Mindanao?); that’s pointless except as a hedge against China.
  • Egypt’s descent into impoverished, dysfunctional tyranny means that it no longer is a threat to anyone, much less nuclear-armed Israel.
  • Syria’s civil war eliminates Damascus as a concern, eliminating any rational for ongoing alignment with Jordan.
  • Relations with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have long been dominated by the concern of oil availability. Because of the shale revolution, the Americans only need that oil to fuel their alliance — an alliance that now is largely strategically irrelevant.
  • Subsidizing German, Polish, Baltic, and Romanian economic and physical security only makes sense if the United States wants to risk a ground war with an increasingly insecure (and yet still nuclear-armed) Russia.
  • Pakistan is nothing more than a giant pain in the ass.

What’s coming can only be described as the opposite of a global order — a Disorder.

Want to know more about what that looks like? Our next book — The Absent Superpower: The Shale Revolution and a World Without America — went to the printer today. It should be available in about two weeks. : )

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.


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