Before the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing as a means of domestic oil production, it’s easy to understand the dilemma the United States was in. The country had and still has one of the highest demands for oil of any country worldwide: in 2017, for example, we consumed almost 7.5 billion barrels of petroleum, refined for gasoline and other uses. The result was that the country had to rely on buying oil from countries that didn’t exactly share our worldviews, to say the least.
Hydraulic fracturing was modernized (it’s actually an older technology than you might think) as a response to this inability to find a way to meet demand domestically. So far, fracking has been tremendously successful to that end, churning out 4.3 million barrels a day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Here’s where it gets confusing: Fracking is used to harvest shale oil from subsurface rock units beneath the earth’s surface, but it can’t harvest something called oil shale. What if we told you that there was enough oil sitting under a region of the United States to power the country for at least 100 years at current rates of consumption? With a new technology called microwave fracking, the new frontier of energy independence may be closer than most people think.
What Is Microwave Fracking?
Microwave fracking is an oil production technology developed by QMast LLC and announced in 2017 as a new way to harvest petroleum units from oil shale. Scientists and oil companies alike believe that microwave fracking could be “the next big thing” since hydraulic fracturing became widely used, which presents some exciting possibilities for the national energy markets.
How Does Microwave Fracking Work?
How does microwave fracking extract this hard-to-reach oil? First, let’s discuss what makes oil shale so different from shale oil, despite the confusion caused by their similar names. While shale oil is able to be extracted from fracturing shale layers to release petroleum units from pores in the rock, oil shale is not actually oil, but rock that contains oil. Oil shale is typically shallower in the earth, and before microwave fracking, the only way to get to it has been by crushing and heating the rock and separating the oil in this way.
Microwave extraction could be the future of oil production - YouTube
Traditionally, oil shale has been harvested using a controversial and environmentally unfriendly method called “strip” mining or section mining. In this method, oil shale is dug out of the earth, heated separately, and oil is extracted afterward.
QMast’s microwave fracking works in a much less invasive, more technologically advanced way: A special drill is inserted into the ground rock where oil shale lies. The drill releases microwave frequencies, roughly the equivalent of 500 household microwave ovens into the earth. This agitates the area around the drill, super-heating the rock and turning the water and oil liquids into steam and gases, which move upward through the “well” to the surface. Once the rock immediately adjacent to a drill is fully extracted, microwaves can penetrate further away from the drill to harvest a larger area with only one well.
What Are the Advantages of Microwave Fracking?
There are two key advantages of microwave fracking over strip mining:
Microwave Fracking Can Access Untapped Reserves without Surface Mining
The largest oil shale formation in the world is believed to be the Green River formation, right here in the United States, beneath parts of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that there are approximately 3 trillion barrels of oil in the Green River formation. Yes, that’s “trillions” with a “t”. To put that in perspective, the oil reserves in Saudi Arabia are estimated to be around 268 billion barrels. If microwave technology proves to be a viable means of extraction, the Green River formation alone could supply the oil needs of the United States for well over 100 years at current consumption rates—a game-changer for the oil industry.
Microwave Fracking Uses Almost No Water
Fracking requires roughly between 2 and 8 million gallons of water for a single well while microwave fracking uses little water. However, the use of almost no water comes at a tradeoff.
Microwave fracking requires a great deal of electricity. Therefore the debate of whether or not microwave fracking is more environmentally friendly is somewhat similar to the debate on electric cars. Wired.com hosted an article in 2016 with the title, “Tesla’s Electric Cars Aren’t as Green as You Might Think.”
Electricity has to come from somewhere. According to the EIA, just over 50% of the electricity in Colorado was generated by coal fired plants in 2017. Part of the largest oil shale formation in the world lies beneath Colorado. In other words, there are many variables to be considered when determining whether or not one process is more “environmentally friendly” than another.
What Is the Cost of Microwave Fracking?
Microwaves will take a lot of electricity to operate. Can that much electricity be generated in such a way that the microwave process is profitable? What is the break-even price per barrel using this process? Many questions remain to be answered, but it’s believed by some to be near 20% more expensive than traditional methods.
The answers will come, sooner than later, with the deployment of this new oilfield technology happening any day now with the hopes of achieving producing oil wells shortly. Peter Kearl, co-founder and CTO of Qmast, has been working on this technology for over 20 years and hopes it will start an energy revolution that will surpass even that of the fracking revolution. While the use of fracking may lead the U.S. to energy independence, microwave fracking technology may well lead the U.S. to the next level in world oil and gas production and further down the road to energy dominance.
Here are a few of the market indicators and worldwide conditions that make it likely that oil exports will continue to increase this summer:
A Soaring Brent-WTI Spread
The Brent-WTI spread has long affected oil futures, but since the U.S. hasn’t been allowed to export most petroleum products since the oil crisis of the 1970s, there has been little reason to pay attention. A highly simplified interpretation of the Brent-WTI Spread is the difference in price between the WTI oil price index used by U.S. oil producers and the Brent oil price index used by producers overseas. The Brent-WTI spread, simplified, is the difference between the price of oil domestically and the price worldwide.
In May 2018, this market indicator reached a value of nearly 9 dollars per barrel, meaning that U.S. exporters could sell oil to foreign countries at a significant discount as compared to Brent crude oil. Pair this with the fact that oil reserves are growing in the United States and it’s almost a natural result that any surplus above the demand would be sold, according to stock market veteran Andrew Hecht.
When the U.S. rejoined the market in 2016, it affected the market share of OPEC, the cartel that has historically controlled production and price in the world oil market. This has allowed the U.S. to undercut OPEC prices and reach a large foreign demand for a stable oil producer. For example, U.S. oil exports increased by 527,000 barrels per day between 2016 and 2017. 20% of that increase came in exports to China, in response to instability in OPEC and its member countries.
These trends in the global market have set the stage for what analysts are saying will be a record-setting summer, according to Bloomberg News. Oil futures are better than ever due to a combination of market factors and an increase in oil production due to new technologies and areas in the U.S. which will cause oil exports to increase to a potential record-breaking level of over 2 million barrels a day.
Despite the meteoric rise in the number of horizontal wells and the use of hydraulic fracturing, vertical wells are still a mainstay of oil production in conventional fields throughout Oklahoma. With plenty of oil available in shallow formations that can be accessed at significant less cost, producers won’t be retiring this tool from their production tool belt anytime soon.
Why Oklahoma Vertical Wells Persist
As recently as 2016, nearly 200 of the approximately 1000 completed wells in Oklahoma were vertical wells. Despite declining use, many producers still reap substantial benefits from drilling vertical wells, not the least of which is cost savings. Even though technological advances have reduced the costs of drilling horizontal wells, vertical wells still cost substantially less to drill due to simplicity of drilling, lack of need to frac, and shorter length of wellbore.
Saudi Arabia is the King of Vertical Wells with their conventional fields producing oil at a cost of only around $10 per barrel. Other areas in the Middle East and North Africa produce crude from conventional fields for around $20 per barrel. Worldwide, conventional oil production typically costs between $30 to $40 a barrel, which is on par for U.S. producers drilling similar vertical projects. For horizontal drilling (and the requisite hydraulic fracking needed for getting oil out of unconventional shale fields in the United States), breakeven ranges from as low as $40 per barrel to as much as $90 per barrel depending on location.
When looking at these breakeven numbers, it becomes apparent why producers may turn to conventional fields when prices are low. With vertical drilling, the process is more simple and straightforward than the process of drilling horizontal wells. Drilling a short, straight wellbore can happen quickly and efficiently with far less margin for error. One caveat to this is dry hole risk. With unconventional shale, wells are drilled horizontally into a blanket formation, which exposes the wellbore to sometimes up to two miles of production potential and almost guarantees oil will flow. With vertical drilling, operators rely on technology such as 3-D seismic to detect geological anomalies to help guide their drilling operations to find pockets of oil.
Vertical Wells in Oklahoma Still Viable for Investors
Targeting conventional reservoirs via vertical wells remains a viable option in places like Oklahoma and other areas outside the major shale plays. Even with the trade-off of significantly lower initial production numbers, vertical wells enjoy much lower breakeven points, which can help producers maintain profitability in lower price environments thus delivering returns to their capital partners.
The Permian Basin is likely to become even more of a hotbed of oil and gas activity in 2018 with a surge in output projected “to push total U.S. liquids production to a new all-time high.” With the projected increase in production, many producers are seeking new solutions for moving crude, and moving it faster and cheaper. The possibility of a looming bottleneck is leading the industry to put more consideration into just how much pipeline capacity can be added in the Basin––with capacity questions becoming increasingly more relevant starting in 2019.
Demand Drives Pipeline Development
As is so often the case with oilfield opportunities, several players have stepped up to help answer increased customer demand, preemptively heading off any potential bottleneck in the Permian at the pass.
All this oil and gas must be taken to market as efficiently as possible––especially as U.S. exports of both crude oil and natural gas continue to rise. And the hotspot hydrocarbon destination out of the Permian to markets worldwide is Corpus Christi.
Connecting to World-Wide Markets via Corpus Christi
Currently, the Cactus Pipeline, owned by Plains All American, is the only major pipeline connecting the Permian Basin to Corpus Christi. While Plains All American is working to expand the crude oil capacity of Cactus, the company is also slated to build another pipeline, the Cactus II, to help meet even more demand. Originating west of Odessa and traveling southeast to McCamey, Texas, the Cactus II is planned to connect with a larger pipeline to finish out the journey to Corpus Christi and the nearby port city of Ingleside.
Other companies are now looking to join Plains All American with pipelines stretching from the Permian to the Port of Corpus Christi. If completed, these new projects will add considerable takeaway capacity to the region.
New Pipeline Projects in the Permian
Kinder Morgan’s Gulf Coast Express Pipeline Project is designed to transport up to 1.92 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas out of the basin. The pipeline is set to originate just outside of Coyanosa, Texas and extend approximately 447 miles southeast to Agua Dulce, just west of Corpus Christi. Kinder Morgan hopes to have the GCX Project completed by October of 2019.
The 730-mile EPIC pipeline will add another 590,000 barrels per day of take-away capacity with terminals slated to be built in Orla, Pecos, Crane, Wink, Midland, Helena, and Gardendale, offering convenient connectivity to Corpus Christi. EPIC CEO Phillip Mezey hopes to have the project completed and in service sometime in 2019.
In April 2017, Enterprise Products Partners L.P. announced plans to construct a 571-mile NGL pipeline from the Permian to their fractionation and storage complex in Mont Belvieu, Texas. Enterprise dubbed the project, the Shin Oak pipeline. The Shin Oak, which is currently under construction, is expected to be in service in the second quarter of 2019.
In December 2017, Enterprise Products Partners L.P. announced it would convert one of its existing NGL pipelines, which stretches from the Permian Basin to the Gulf Coast, to crude oil service. Evaluation is underway as to which pipeline, the Seminole Blue, Seminole Red, or the Chaparral, is to be converted to transport crude oil.
The BridgeTex pipeline from Midland to Houston recently expanded its crude oil capacity from 300,000 bpd to 400,000 bpd. Now BridgeTex Pipeline Co LLC has plans to increase the capacity once again to 440,000 bpd. The new expansion is slated to be operational in early 2019.
Magellan Midstream Partners, LP has plans to construct a pipeline to originate in Crane, Texas which will extend 375 miles southeast to Three Rivers where the pipeline will split in two directions. Shippers will then have the option to deliver via a new pipeline 70 miles southeast to Corpus Christi, or they can opt to make Houston their destination via a new 200-mile pipeline.
The Takeaway from Increased Takeaway
The oil and gas industry is one of the best in the business at responding to opportunity––and there’s no bigger opportunity boon than the Permian Basin. Despite a persistently stubborn down-cycle in oil prices, 800,000 b/d of new production were added in the region from June 2014 to June 2017. If projections hold true, this number will be dwarfed by with another 2.3 million b/d added to the Permian’s output by 2022, bringing daily production up to 3.467 million b/d.
As Permian Basin production continues to defy expectations––and export opportunities out of the Texas Gulf continue to open––pipeline capacity will continue to be a hot topic over the next few years. As it stands today, there’s roughly only 300,000 b/d of excess pipeline capacity. While over-build is certainly a concern, the pipeline projects discussed above, if all completed, would deliver annual capacity of over 3 million b/d by 2020, a decent ramp-up to handle the potential flood of new oil out of the Permian.
Texas oil production continues to climb with many factors contributing to Texas’ output. But, it’s the shale revolution occurring in the Permian Basin which accounts for most of the increased production. Over the course of 2017, Texas produced over a billion barrels of crude, finishing out the year with approximately 1,281,583,000 barrels of crude oil production.
Texas, the Largest Oil Producer in the United States
Advancements in shale drilling and extraction technology implemented in the Permian Basin have contributed to most of Texas’ increased oil production. Output from the basin is poised to increase going forward, with a drilled/uncompleted well inventory at the end of 2017 at 2,768 wells. With such a head start, Texas most likely won’t lose its place as the top oil producer in the country.
The EIA shows production from Texas fields increasing in bpd each month since August of 2017. The data points to US shale oil hitting nearly 7 million bpd by April of 2018. That number in combination with traditional oil extraction and offshore production, positions the US as the third leading crude oil producer in the world, closely behind Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Some analysts project that 2018 may become the year the US surpasses Saudi Arabia and contend with Russia for the top spot. This all goes to show just how much Texas contributes to the overall landscape of crude oil production in the United States. Nevertheless, it’s not Texas alone that is breaking crude oil production records in the U.S.
Production in Others States Still Going Strong
New Mexico set an oil production record as well. While their numbers can look a little modest next to Texas, they still sit in third place for oil production in the US.
The secret to New Mexico’s success isn’t much of a secret. Oil and gas companies have spent a considerable amount of time drilling and developing in the part of the Permian that sits within the state of New Mexico.
North Dakota takes the second place spot behind Texas. Unfortunately, the state saw something of a dip in production recently due to weather. Still, the state still manages to produce over 1 million bpd. The efforts in the Bakken and Three Forks shale formations continue to do well.
However, the crude production of ND, NM, AK, CA, and OK combined aren’t near equal to Texas. The state is responsible for about a third of the nation’s total crude, as well as a third of the nation’s refining capacity.
Texas is also the leading national gas producer. In fact, Texas ranks highest for total energy production overall in the United States.
Texas Oil Production Likely to Remain #1 in Country
Many companies have set their sights on the Permian with plans to take advantage of the continuing growth. Exploration is up along with the increased production.
Over half the rigs in the country are in Texas. Of those, the majority sit in the Permian Basin. Investors are flooding the region with funds. Some energy companies have dropped most other activities just to focus their efforts on the Permian shale play, see here, here, and here.
Many analysts agree that production will continue to increase, even if they don’t agree on exactly by how much. Texas oil production hitting the billion barrel mark for the last four years in a row is only the beginning.
The Trump tax plan came with plenty of criticism from both sides of the political aisle, but recent announcements of investments in the oil and gas industry paint a different, more unified picture.
Cutting the Corporate Tax Rate
Passed on December 22nd, 2017, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is the single largest piece of tax reform legislation in decades. Providing significant changes that include tax rate reductions for both individuals and businesses, Americans from all walks of life are likely to see benefits under the new law.
Corporations, however, will see the biggest gains. With corporate tax rates plummeting from a marginal tax rate of up to 35% to a flat 21% tax, oil and gas companies operating in virtually all capacities are poised to see huge savings––which means more capital is freed up to pour back into the oilfield.
Growth in Oil and Gas
Oil and gas as an industry has been sitting on a precipice of potential change for some time now, but Trump’s tax cuts have breathed new life into upstream and downstream operations across the industry. The announcement of this game-changer came at the perfect time; with crude oil prices rallying since June, the simultaneous impact of billions in tax savings has reinvigorated money managers once skeptical about the staying power of traditional energy. In the first week of February, the top four refiners announced combined gains of a whopping $7 billion for Q4 of 2017.
Tax Cuts Lead to Big Future Plans
Oil and gas companies, both big and small, see the tax windfall as an opportunity to boost domestic spending, reward employees, and bring foreign cash back to the United States. Exxon Mobile, the largest publicly traded producer, was among the first to speak up, announcing plans to invest $50 billion over five years in order to triple production across Texas’ Permian Basin. Shell, the oil giant, made a similar declaration, pledging $10 billion in further spending in the U.S. in the years to come.
Gasoline brands are taking advantage of these gains as well. Marathon, for example, approved a 15% increase in dividends in anticipation of future savings. Electric companies are also enjoying reduced tax liabilities; Dominion Energy and NextEra both announced heightened gains and, subsequently, increased forecasts.
A New and Exciting Frontier
The changes brought about by the Trump tax cuts are still in their infancy, and there’s no telling what the years to come have in store. In time, more and more companies in the energy sector could possibly follow in the footsteps of Exxon, Marathon, and Shell – and they’re probably not alone. Not only are the new U.S. corporate tax rates benefiting the oil and gas industry, but corporations of all kinds are profiting as well, in addition to their investors and employees across America.
Many shale producers entered 2018 riding high, a trend that appears to have some staying power. One factor that could upend this trend is overproduction. An over-abundance of oil could force pricing down and possibly erase the gains seen in recent months.
US shale producers will have to figure out how to find their sweet spot, aligning production with demand signals while also managing shareholder expectations. Once they find it, they need to stay there, because going beyond that sweet spot could cause grief for the industry as a whole.
What Does Moderation Mean in the Gas and Oil Industry?
Prognosticators across the country agree production will in the US. However, no one can seem to agree on just how much production will grow. The target remains largely a mystery, especially since shale producers aren’t playing by the old rules anymore. They are innovating, using new technology, taking different approaches, and even spending less to gain more.
This year will likely see less focus on production and more focus on positive cashflow, shareholder returns, and debt repayment. That, in turn, means producers will spend even less on aggressive expansion.
Instead, producers will, and should, start practicing moderation in their efforts. This will maintain their current rate of production at sustainable levels while they focus on creating more value with what they have.
Spending Less While Paying Out More
The phrase “capital discipline” will almost certainly enter into any discussion of moderation. Many people assume capital discipline involves a purposeful lack of growth, but that’s not always the case.
Growth for the sake of growth isn’t tenable at this point in time. Scaling back or practicing moderation will also help to slow down the equivalent of a production race happening across the globe. With the US producing more, pressure increases for other entities to start producing more as well to maintain market share.
2018 is the perfect time to slow down and figure out ways to continue to increase efficiencies. Producers need to start taking advantage of new techniques and new information from studies and reports over the last few years. In fact, many producers have already started to focus more on payouts and downsizing extraneous assets.
There’s Still Room for Growth
With all this being said, there is still room for growth. Places like the Permian Basin, the Eagle Ford Shale, and the Bakken are still hotbeds of activity and growth. As even more exploration areas open, many producers will flock to these locales to stake their claims.
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Recently, the Trump administration announced proposals to free up the majority of US coastal waters for oil and gas drilling. While this would serve as a sharp reversal of the previous administration’s stance on offshore drilling, it could possibly represent a boon to the many who invest in the oil and gas industry.
What the Trump Administration’s Offshore Drilling Proposals Entail
In April of 2017, President Trump signed an executive order allowing the Interior Department to look into Obama’s use of an obscure provision of the OCS Lands Act. This provision allowed the previous administration to block exploration and new leases in the Atlantic and Arctic as well as other U.S. coastal waters.
The current administration proposes to lift the ban completely. With the lifting of that ban, over a billion acres will open up for leasing. That includes areas off the coast of the Atlantic, Alaska, the Pacific, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says they’ve already identified 47 areas where oil and gas companies can buy leases between 2019 and 2024. However, it’s important to understand these proposals are still currently in the draft phase.
With the current administration’s stance of “energy dominance,” there’s a good possibility these proposals, or some version of them, will remain intact throughout the process. Whatever the final proposal, it opens the door for new oil, gas, and energy investments.
What Investors Stand to Gain from Widened Offshore Drilling Action
With the opening of the outer continental shelf, there’s potential for billions of barrels of oil equivalent to become available for new development. That means the energy sector could see a major boost in production, and at the same time, decrease America’s dependence on foreign oil imports.
Rystad Energy, an energy consulting firm, points out the potentially vast amount of untapped and undiscovered resources in the many areas that were previously restricted. The Rystad report calculated their estimates based on the high-case scenario that all of the proposed areas would see exploration. Even if only a portion of the proposed areas open for leasing, the potential to produce multiple billions of barrels of oil equivalent still exist.
What Opposition Does Trump’s Offshore Drilling Proposals Face?
Not everyone is on board with the Trump administration’s offshore drilling proposals. Many governors of coastal states have immediately condemned the proposed actions. Most notably, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida staunchly opposed drilling off the coast of Florida. He sought and received an exclusion for his state.
For investors, it’s still a pragmatic to look towards the future. Even if some coastal waters remain restricted from leasing, there are still over a billion acres that could be opened for development in the new Trump administration offshore drilling proposal.
The Trump administration has huge plans to expand offshore drilling off U.S. coasts in the near future. The expansion plan includes the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Gulf coasts as well as in the Arctic Ocean.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said, “This is a start on looking at American energy dominance and looking at our offshore assets and beginning a dialogue of when, how, where and how fast those offshore assets should be, or could be, developed.”
Zinke went on to say, “This is a clear difference between energy weakness and energy dominance, and under President Trump, we’re going to have the strongest energy policy, and become the strongest energy superpower. And we certainly have the assets to do that.”
Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert issued a statement on the offshore drilling expansion in which he said, “It is truly exciting and encouraging that we have a president that is doing all he can to make us completely energy independent. Being energy independent will ensure that we can never be blackmailed by totalitarian nations who provide us any energy. Under this current administration, we are headed on a road that will establish this country as one of the strongest energy superpowers.”
While not all of the details of the plan are firmly established, the plan is said to include 47 auctions for drilling rights in U.S. coastal areas.
Members of Trump’s Interior department expect to have “vigorous dialogue” with state representatives, local officials, and with members of Congress.
President Trump has repeatedly used the phrase “energy dominance” and this offshore drilling expansion looks to be a big step in that direction, which may significantly boost domestic oil and gas production.