Can the U.S. shale boom continue if WTI stays mired below $50 per barrel?
Much has been made about the dramatic cost reductions that shale drillers have implemented over the past few years, with impressive breakeven prices that should ensure the drilling frenzy continues no matter where oil prices go. On earnings calls with investors and analysts, shale executives repeatedly trumpeted extremely low breakeven prices.
However, those figures are at times cherry-picked or otherwise misleading. They fail to include the cost of land acquisition and other costs, or they simply reflect cost structures in only the very best acreage.
The sudden meltdown in prices – oil fell nearly 8 percent on Tuesday – could put renewed scrutiny on the point at which many shale wells breakeven.
The problem for a lot of companies is that they are not necessarily earning the full WTI price. Oil in West Texas in the Permian Basin continues to trade at a steep discount relative to WTI, even as the differential has narrowed in recent months. With WTI at roughly $47 or $48 per barrel, oil based in Midland is trading below $40 per barrel, the lowest point in more than two years, according to Bloomberg.
Bloomberg NEF data provides more clues into the complex “breakeven” debate. Wells located in the Spraberry (within the Permian basin) can breakeven when prices trade between $32 and $47 per barrel. Digging deeper, Bloomberg NEF notes that some of the best wells can break even in the low $30s, but the worst quartile of wells breakeven at an average of $65.54 per barrel.
In other words, a large portion of wells in the Permian – which, to be clear, is often held up as the best shale basin in the world – is currently unprofitable, given WTI priced in the high-$40s per barrel.
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