How Low Can the Price of Oil Plunge? Wolf Richter

It is possible that a miracle intervenes and that the price of oil bounces off and zooms skyward. We’ve seen stocks perform these sorts of miracles on a routine basis, but when it comes to oil, miracles have become rare. As I’m writing this, US light sweet crude trades at $76.90 a barrel, down 26% from June, a price last seen in the summer of 2010.

But this price isn’t what drillers get paid at the wellhead. Grades of oil vary. In the Bakken, the shale-oil paradise in North Dakota, wellhead prices are significantly lower not only because the Bakken blend isn’t as valuable to refiners as the benchmark West Texas Intermediate, but also because take-away capacity by pipeline is limited. Crude-by-rail has become the dominant – but more costly – way to get the oil from the Northern Rockies to refineries on the Gulf Coast or the East Coast.

These additional transportation costs come out of the wellhead price. So for a particular well, a driller might get less than $60/bbl – and not the $76.90/bbl that WTI traded for at the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Fracking is expensive, capital intensive, and characterized by steep decline rates. Much of the production occurs over the first two years – and much of the cash flow. If prices are low during those two years, the well might never be profitable.

Meanwhile, North Sea Brent has dropped to $79.85 a barrel, last seen in September 2010.

So the US Energy Information Administration, in its monthly short-term energy outlook a week ago, chopped down its forecast of the average price in 2015: WTI from $94.58/bbl to $77.55/bbl and Brent from $101.67/bbl to $83.24/bbl.

Independent exploration and production companies have gotten mauled. For example, Goodrich Petroleum plunged 71% and Comstock Resources 58% from their 52-week highs in June while Rex Energy plunged 65% and Stone Energy 54% from their highs in April.

Integrated oil majors have fared better, so far. Exxon Mobil is down “only” 9% from its July high. On a broader scale, the SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF (XOP) is down 28% from June – even as the S&P 500 set a new record.

So how low can oil drop, and how long can this go on?

The theory is being propagated that the price won’t drop much below the breakeven point in higher-cost areas, such as the tar sands in Canada or the Bakken in the US. At that price, rather than lose money, drillers would stop fracking and tar-sands operators would shut down their tar pits. And soon, supplies would tighten up, inventories would be drawn down, and prices would jump.

But that’s not what happened in natural gas. US drillers didn’t stop fracking when the price of natural gas plunged below the cost of production and kept plunging for years. In April 2012, it reached not a four-year low but a decade-low of about $1.90 per million Btu at the Henry hub. At the time, shorts were vociferously proclaiming that gas storage would be full by fall, that the remaining gas would have to be flared, and that the price would then drop to zero.

But drillers were still drilling, and production continues to rise to this day, though the low price also caused an uptick in consumption that coincided with a harsh winter, leaving storage levels below the five-year minimum for this time of the year.

The gas glut has disappeared. The price at the Henry hub has since more than doubled, but it remains below breakeven for many wells. And when natural gas was selling for $4/MM Btu at the Henry hub, it was selling for $2/MM Btu at the Appalachian hubs, where the wondrous production from the Marcellus shale comes to market. No one can make money at that price.

And they’re still drilling in the Marcellus.

Natural gas drillers had a cover: a well that also produced a lot of oil and natural gas liquids was profitable because they fetched a much higher price. But this too has been obviated by events: on top of the rout in oil, the inevitable glut in natural gas liquids has caused their prices to swoon too (chart).

Yet, they’re still drilling, and production is still rising. And they will continue to drill as long as they can get the moolah to do so. They might pick and choose where they drill, and they might back off a smidgen, but as long as they get the money, they’ll drill.

Money has been flowing into the oil and gas business like a tsunami unleashed by yield-desperate investors who, driven to near insanity by the Fed’s policies, do what the Fed has been telling them to do: close their eyes and hold their noses and disregard risk and hand over their money, and borrow money for nearly free and hand over that money too.

Oil and gas companies have issued record amounts of junk bonds. They’ve raised record amounts of money via a record number of IPOs. They’ve raised money by spinning off assets into publicly traded MLPs. They’ve borrowed from banks that then packaged these loans into securities that were then sold. The industry has taken this cheap money and has drilled it into the ground.

This is one of the consequences of the Fed’s decision to flood the land with free liquidity. When the cost of capital is near zero, and when returns on low-risk investments are near zero as well, or even below zero, investors go into a sort of coma. But when they come out of it and realize that “sunk capital” has taken on a literal meaning, they’ll shut off the spigot.

Only then will drilling and production decline. As with natural gas, it can take years. And as with natural gas, the price might plunge through a four-year low and hit a decade low – which would be near $40/bbl, a price last seen in 2009. The bloodletting would be epic. To see where this is going, watch the money.