Break-even price for shale oil could be as low as $40 per barrel

UPDATE: Reuters – Saudi Arabia’s oil Minister Ali al-Naimi declares war on US Shale OIL


 

Yesterday Saudi Arabia got its way at the OPEC meeting and successfully resisted all calls for a cut in production to try and stop the decline of world oil prices.  It seems Saudi Arabia (which has the lowest oil production cost in the world) has chosen the strategy of maintaining an oil price low enough to put a cap on US shale oil production and provide a disincentive for new shale oil wells.

This strategy is premised on the break-even price for shale oil being at or above $80 per barrel for small production sites down to about $30 per barrel for large production sites. For example Credit Suisse estimated these levels as varying between $24 and $85 earlier this year.

shale oil break even estimates credit suisse

shale oil break even estimates credit suisse sep 2014

 

The US department of Energy puts sustainable break even values between $35 and $54. The Saudi calculations seem to be based on similar estimates. They appear to believe that with current oil prices moving down to about $70 per barrel, some of the smaller US oil shale wells are already uneconomic and that at this price new investment for further production sites will dry up.

But shale oil production costs are declining – fast. Costs are coming down following the learning curve for both capital costs and running costs. The analyst estimates are already out of date. My estimate is that actual break-even points are already down about 20% from those in the Credit Suisse estimate.

So I believe the Saudis have miscalculated. The average break-even world price for shale oil is probably – already – closer to $40 per barrel rather than $60-70 per barrel being assumed. While new investment in shale oil wells may well be toned down by world oil consumption, it will probably not be because world oil price is below some critical threshold. If the Saudis believe that any uptick in consumption will bring the oil price back up to over $80 per barrel, they are following a flawed strategy. We could be in for a decade of relatively low oil prices perhaps with a floor at around $40 per barrel and set by the average break-even for shale oil.

Consumers are still very wary. They are not sure that the reduction in oil price will be sustained and is not just a temporary dip which might lure them into a higher and more vulnerable consumption level. It will take a few months for them to see that OPEC has actually lost control over the world oil price but is still in denial about that. A sustained low oil price is what will trigger a new – and sustained – wave of global growth that is now so badly needed. The cartel is shrinking. New shale oil producers will all be outside the cartel – and the sooner Europe, China and India start production the better. But it is the beginning of the end of the OPEC cartel power.

History will – I think – show that the OPEC cartel lasted for 50 years. It will show that the cartel started in 1973 and that market forces of supply and demand were re-established around 2020.

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