HOUSTON – It’s official: The shale oil boom is starting to waver.
And, in a way, it may have souped-up rigs and more efficient drilling technologies to thank for that.
Crude production at three major U.S. shale oil fields is projected to fall this month for the first time in six years, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said Tuesday.
It’s one of the first signs that idling hundreds of drilling rigs and billions of dollars in corporate cutbacks are starting to crimp the nation’s surging oil patch.
But it also shows that drilling technology and techniques have advanced to the point that productivity gains may be negligible in some shale plays where horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have been used together for the past several years.
Because some plays are already full of souped-up horizontal rigs, oil companies don’t have as many options to become more efficient and stem production losses, as they did in the 2008-2009 downturn, the EIA said.
The EIA’s monthly drilling productivity report indicates that rapid production declines from older wells in three shale plays are starting to overtake new output, as oil companies drill fewer wells.
In the recession six years ago, the falling rig count didn’t lead to declining production because new technologies boosted how fast rigs could drill wells.
But now that oil firms have figured out how to drill much more efficiently, “it is not clear that productivity gains will offset rig count declines to the same degree as in 2008-09,” the EIA said.
Overall, U.S. oil production is set to increase slightly from March to April to 5.6 million barrels a day in six major fields, according to the EIA.
But output is falling in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, North Dakota’s Bakken Shale and the Niobrara Shale in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas.
In those three fields, net production is expected to drop by a combined 24,000 barrels a day.
The losses were masked by production gains in the Permian Basin in West Texas and other regions.
Efficiency improvements are still emerging in the Permian, faster than in other oil fields because the region was largely a vertical-drilling zone as recently as December 2013, the EIA said.
Net crude output in the Bakken is expected to decline by 8,000 barrels a day from March to April. In the Eagle Ford, it’s slated to fall by 10,000 barrels a day. And in the Niobrara, production will dip by roughly 5,000 barrels a day.
But daily crude output jumped by 21,000 barrels in the Permian and by 3,000 barrels in the Utica Shale in Ohio and Pennsylvania.