The big question for US shale: Is it permanent or just ‘permania?’

A pump jack used to help lift crude oil from a well in the South Texas Eagle Ford Shale formation. US shale oil producers have upended old assumptions in the global energy market. (Reuters)
Updated 08 March 2018
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The big question for US shale: Is it permanent or just ‘permania?’

LONDON: The Americans have a name for it — “Permania” — which they use to describe the frantic, even crazy, activity around the shale oil fields of West Texas.
In the past four years, the global energy market has been stood on its head by the boom in US crude production, to the point where the Americans are now producing more oil than Saudi Arabia and will soon overtake the world’s biggest producer, Russia.
The US’s 10 million barrels of oil per day account for roughly 10 percent of global output, and, as domestic demand for energy is saturated, they are being exported increasingly to the rest of the world.
That boom has unhinged the global oil market. The price collapse of 2014, the “Vienna Alliance” between OPEC countries and Russia, and the fiscal challenges of countries in the Gulf, are all down to the shale boom.
Sara Ortwein, president of Exxon Mobil’s shale business XTO Energy, told the CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference in Houston, Texas this week: “A decade ago, the idea of exporting US crude would have been seen as preposterous. Now, we have enough to satisfy US energy needs and sell it to the rest of the world.”
The Permian basin, west of Houston, Texas, and straddling New Mexico, is at the heart of the revolution. It produces 25 percent of American oil output, and has virtually changed the global oil equation on its own.
For traditional exporters like Saudi Arabia, it presents a big question: To join the party in Texas and other US shale fields, or to stick to pumping crude from the sands and seas of the Middle East?
“We have the golden goose, right before us,” said Tim Dove of Pioneer Natural Resources, one of the leading shale companies and among the first to exploit the Permian around the turn of the millennium. “We don’t drill dry holes, because we know the oil is there. Technology will only make it better. The sky is the limit,” he told the CERAWeek.
In a throwaway line, he seemed rather pleased about how he and other shale producers have caused confusion in the ranks of the traditional producers.
“I think that OPEC is impressed by what we’ve done, even if they are trying to get their arms about what it all means.”
He was speaking after a meeting with OPEC officials and traditional oil company executives in one of the many power-broking dinners around the CERAWeek venue.
It was the second year that OPEC had invited the shale barons to break bread in an attempt to end the undeclared hostilities between traditional oil producers and the Texans in place since the fall in prices in summer 2014.
Mohammed Barkindo, Opec general secretary, explains how the “peace” talks had come about. “We agreed last year to continue the dialogue with the Sahel industry. The last stage of the oil cycle has been the most injurious for all our members, and to everybody in the world. We all suffered. We had been operating in silos and we agreed to talk to the shale industry.”
Barkindo insisted that the meeting did not discuss oil prices or deals on limiting output, and Dove pointed out that US anti-cartel laws would make such agreements illegal.
“You cannot have these kind of talks in the US. We were invited and we went along. As far as I’m concerned, the dinner was congenial, and it may well become an annual event,” Dove said.
There has been speculation that some OPEC members might seek to do deals with shale producers as a way of balancing their portfolios and getting exposure to the upside in shale.
Amin Nasser, chief executive of Saudi Aramco, said that the company was always looking to get involved in growth areas, but he did not specify which ones.
But some in Houston questioned whether the shale industry had cured the “boom or bust” cycle of the past, when falling oil prices led to withdrawal of financial support from investors.
Others pointed out that shale still faced big problems in overcoming pipeline and shipping challenges, as well as opposition from the environmental lobby.
Mark Pappa, one of the pioneers of shale finance via his company EOG Resources, said that shale forecasts were too optimistic, and that the industry was exploiting cheap and easy assets that would quickly be exhausted.
“If shale does disappoint over the next four to five years, there are not a lot of safety valves in the system,” he said.
Dove dismissed these fears, pointing out that the shale industry’s cost breakeven price was only $19 per barrel. “There is no downturn price that would affect our profitability until it gets to below $40 a barrel,” he said.
Nonetheless, Papp’s skepticism was a wake-up call in Houston for an industry that was basking in its own considerable achievements.
But the convinced “Permaniacs” remained optimistic. Ortwein, who suggests the Permian could eventually be producing five million barrels of oil per day, half the total output of Saudi Arabia, said: “Permania is not a fad, it is permanent.”


‘Fuel of the future’ comes of age as Aramco opens first hydrogen filling station

Updated 17 June 2019
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‘Fuel of the future’ comes of age as Aramco opens first hydrogen filling station

  • Fatih Birol’s comments were a deliberate poke at those experts who think that the sheer logistics of hydrogen make it always an unlikely solution to global energy challenges
  • Birol’s article was followed by a report from the IEA that put some meat on the bones of the argument that hydrogen is key to solving problems such as global warming

DUBAI: Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, cracked a joke in the Financial Times a couple of weeks ago.
“Hydrogen is the fuel of the future, and it always will be,” he wrote about the fuel that many experts agree could hold the key to the world’s energy problems.
It was a deliberate poke at those experts who think that the sheer logistics of hydrogen — generation, storage, and transportation — make it always an unlikely solution to global energy challenges.
Birol’s article was followed by a report from the IEA that put some meat on the bones of the argument that hydrogen is key to solving such problems as global warming and environmental degradation.
“The world has an important opportunity to tap into hydrogen’s vast potential to become a critical part of a more sustainable and secure energy future … The world should not miss this unique chance to make hydrogen an important part of our clean and secure energy future,” the report said.
That argument will get a critical boost today, when Saudi Aramco, the biggest oil company in the world, opens its first hydrogen fueling station in Dhahran Techno Valley, in the heart of the Kingdom’s oil producing region.
Aramco has partnered with Air Products, a US company that has been a pioneer in the use of industrial gases, to produce a filling station for hydrogen-fueled vehicles.

 

It is very much a test. “The collected data during this pilot phase of the project will provide valuable information for the assessment of future applications of this emerging transport technology in the local environment,” Aramco said when the project was first announced.
But it is something Aramco has been investigating for a long time. Ahmed Al-Khowaiter, Aramco’s chef technology officer, said: “The use of hydrogen derived from oil or gas to power fuel cell electric vehicles represents an exciting opportunity to expand the use of oil in clean transport.”
Hydrogen — essentially what is left when you take the oxygen out of water — has been recognized as a potential fuel source for many decades. Motor manufacturers developed a hydrogen motor engine 50 years ago, but the ease and accessibility of hydrocarbon fuels — oil, gas and coal — made it uneconomic to develop this technology beyond the prototype stage.
Now, as the debate over the role of hydrocarbons in the global environmental balance has become ever more intense, some experts, including Birol and other influential parts of the thought-leadership establishment, believe hydrogen is the next Big Thing in global energy trends.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) said recently that “green” hydrogen offers a solution to the world energy challenge, and that is the problem the theoreticians are struggling with: Hydrogen is released naturally in the process of burning hydrocarbons, but it is self-defeating, in an environmental sense. if you have to burn oil, gas or coal to produce it.
On the other hand, renewable sources, like sun, wind and water, do not produce enough hydrogen to be practically or commercially viable, and not at the right times, when people actually need it.
But, as the WEF noted recently “low-cost green hydrogen is coming”, as technology advances mean the cost of renewable energy falls dramatically each year. The Middle East already has a very big and very cost-efficient program for solar energy generation.
The other challenges lay in how to store and transport hydrogen. It can be loaded onto a tanker like LNG, or pushed through pipelines, but it would require a huge investment to change current logistics systems — essentially designed for oil and LNG — to handle hydrogen.
Many countries, including Saudi Arabia, already have the infrastructure associated with oil and gas refining and petrochemicals production to be able to equip “hydrogen hubs,” as long as there is government will and commercial incentive to do so.
For the Kingdom, it looks like a no-brainer for the future. As Birol said: “So, hydrogen offers tantalising promises of cleaner industry and emissions-free power. Turning it into energy produces only water, not greenhouse gases. It’s also the most abundant element in the universe. What’s not to like?”

FACTOID

Technological advances mean low-cost ‘green’ hydrogen offers a solution to the world energy challenge, according to the World Economic Forum.