“People need to kinda settle in for a while.” That’s what Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson said about the low price of oil at the company’s investor conference. “I see a lot of supply out there.”
So Exxon is going to do its darnedest to add to this supply: 16 new production projects will start pumping oil and gas through 2017. Production will rise from 4 million barrels per day to 4.3 million. But it will spend less money to get there, largely because suppliers have had to cut their prices.
That’s the global oil story. In the US, a similar scenario is playing out. Drillers are laying some people off, not massive numbers yet. Like Exxon, they’re shoving big price cuts down the throats of their suppliers. They’re cutting back on drilling by idling the least efficient rigs in the least productive plays – and they’re not kidding about that.
In the latest week, they idled a 64 rigs drilling for oil, according to Baker Hughes, which publishes the data every Friday. Only 922 rigs were still active, down 42.7% from October, when they’d peaked. Within 21 weeks, they’ve taken out 687 rigs, the most terrific, vertigo-inducing oil-rig nose dive in the data series, and possibly in history:
As Exxon and other drillers are overeager to explain: just because we’re cutting capex, and just because the rig count plunges, doesn’t mean our production is going down. And it may not for a long time. Drillers, loaded up with debt, must have the cash flow from production to survive.
But with demand languishing, US crude oil inventories are building up further. Excluding the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, crude oil stocks rose by another 10.3 million barrels to 444.4 million barrels as of March 4, the highest level in the data series going back to 1982, according to the Energy Information Administration. Crude oil stocks were 22% (80.6 million barrels) higher than at the same time last year.
“When you have that much storage out there, it takes a long time to work that off,” said BP CEO Bob Dudley, possibly with one eye on this chart:
So now there is a lot of discussion when exactly storage facilities will be full, or nearly full, or full in some regions. In theory, once overproduction hits used-up storage capacity, the price of oil will plummet to whatever level short sellers envision in their wildest dreams. Because: what are you going to do with all this oil coming out of the ground with no place to go?
A couple of days ago, the EIA estimated that crude oil stock levels nationwide on February 20 (when they were a lot lower than today) used up 60% of the “working storage capacity,” up from 48% last year at that time. It varied by region:
Capacity is about 67% full in Cushing, Oklahoma (the delivery point for West Texas Intermediate futures contracts), compared with 50% at this point last year. Working capacity in Cushing alone is about 71 million barrels, or … about 14% of the national total.
As of September 2014, storage capacity in the US was 521 million barrels. So if weekly increases amount to an average of 6 million barrels, it would take about 13 weeks to fill the 77 million barrels of remaining capacity. Then all kinds of operational issues would arise. Along with a dizzying plunge in price.
In early 2012, when natural gas hit a decade low of $1.92 per million Btu, they predicted the same: storage would be full, and excess production would have to be flared, that is burned, because there would be no takers, and what else are you going to do with it? So its price would drop to zero.
They actually proffered that, and the media picked it up, and regular folks began shorting natural gas like crazy and got burned themselves, because it didn’t take long for the price to jump 50% and then 100%.
Oil is a different animal. The driving season will start soon. American SUVs and pickups are designed to burn fuel in prodigious quantities. People will be eager to drive them a little more, now that gas is cheaper, and they’ll get busy shortly and fix that inventory problem, at least for this year. But if production continues to rise at this rate, all bets are off for next year.
Natural gas, though it refused to go to zero, nevertheless got re-crushed, and the price remains below the cost of production at most wells. Drilling activity has dwindled. Drillers idled 12 gas rigs in the latest week. Now only 268 rigs are drilling for gas, the lowest since April 1993, and down 83.4% from its peak in 2008! This is what the natural gas fracking boom-and-bust cycle looks like:
Yet production has continued to rise. Over the last 12 months, it soared about 9%, which is why the price got re-crushed.
Producing gas at a loss year after year has consequences. For the longest time, drillers were able to paper over their losses on natural gas wells with a variety of means and go back to the big trough and feed on more money that investors were throwing at them, because money is what fracking drills into the ground.
But that trough is no longer being refilled for some companies. And they’re running out. “Restructuring” and “bankruptcy” are suddenly the operative terms. Read… “Default Monday”: Oil & Gas Companies Face Their Creditors