US shale bust slams rural economies as oil checks shrivel

For now, the US shale boom is over, with uncertain times ahead. (Reuters)
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Updated 23 May 2020

US shale bust slams rural economies as oil checks shrivel

  • US output could be hit by as many as 2 million barrels a day for the next two years

DEWITT COUNTY TEXAS: Royalties from oil pumped on Paul Ruckman’s land allowed the South Texas retiree to build a six-bedroom, seven-bathroom vacation home. He had plenty left over, and donated some of it to Helena, Texas, an 1800s ghost town that draws hundreds to historic buildings and gunfight re-enactments.

The worst oil bust in decades has slashed the bounty that flowed to millions of rural Americans like Ruckman, who said his royalty checks have plummeted 70 percent since January.

“I imagine they’re going to be dropping quite a bit more,” said Ruckman, who owns the land with his brothers.

The bust has erased tens of thousands of jobs in the drilling and service sectors, dried up local tax revenues and charitable largess that flowed along with crude oil to Texas, North Dakota and Oklahoma.

Thanks to modern drilling technology, shale has turned the United States into the world’s No. 1 energy producer, pumping as much as 13 million barrels per day (bpd) before prices crashed. It added about a percentage point to US GDP between 2010 and 2015. Shale-related jobs lifted the employment rate in Texas and North Dakota to a multiple of the national average.

In DeWitt County, Texas, 80 miles (129 kilometers) southeast of San Antonio, incomes shot up to sixth highest among the state’s 254 counties at the peak of the shale boom in 2014 from 116th a decade ago, based on US tax data.

Shale oil fed a global glut. OPEC and allied producers supported prices by cutting output, but this year Saudi Arabia and Russia briefly pumped more. Then fuel demand collapsed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Oil prices are about half January’s level, and many shale producers have shut wells.

US output could fall about 2 million bpd this year and next, Bank of America has estimated.

Ruckman is among 12 million US mineral owners who collect “mailbox money,” or payments for oil and gas extracted from their land. He declined to say how much his property drew, but residents in the heart of Texas’ Eagle Ford shale got bigger royalties than many, able to negotiate richer leases because the region came later to the boom.

Royalties, which can range from 12.5 percent to 25 percent of the value of oil and gas pumped, helped revitalize DeWitt and other communities in oil patches across the US.

John Baen, a Texas college professor who owns mineral rights in South Texas, collected as much as $100,000 a month in recent years. The payments have dwindled to $6,000 and by August, he said, “I’ll be lucky to get anything.”

The average oil-land owner collects about $500 a month, according to the National Association of Royalty Owners, but that will not last. April’s price crash was so sharp, falling at one point into negative territory, that minerals holder Jubilee Royalty Holdings received a $1 check that month from Exxon Mobil .

The shale boom paid off debt from restoring DeWitt’s pink granite and sandstone courthouse and expanding the jail. Oil helped finance the area’s Boys and Girls Club, which provides activities for area children.

It brought jobs that cut DeWitt’s unemployment rate to 2.6 percent in February from 8 percent a decade earlier. During that time, oil and gas jobs here roughly doubled, according to the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association.

The boom enabled bookkeeper Karen Jensen Zielonka to find work managing a new restaurant in 2015 and later gave her accounting work for Cuero Oilfield Lodging, a nearby “man camp” for transient workers.

“When this first happened they said it would last 25 years,” said Zielonka.

But unemployment rose to 3.5 percent in March. Cuero Oilfield Lodging camp has been vacant since late March when shale jobs dried up, said manager Tammi Marks, who cut most of her staff.

“We’re doing a lot of praying,” she said.

Officials here and in other US shale patches are bracing for more cuts. The value of DeWitt’s mineral properties could fall this year by half, from $5.3 billion last year, county chief executive Daryl Fowler estimated.

Officials do not expect to reduce county jobs, “but it can happen,” said Fowler.

In the last oil bust, from 2015-2016, DeWitt’s average incomes fell 31 percent. That drop was short-lived, with pay rising again by 2018.

Oilfield worker Freddie Fuentes sailed through that period, without losing his job. He fears this one will sting much more.

“Right now we have about five weeks of work,” said Fuentes. “After that we’re done.”

Some drillers hope for a turnaround. Oil prices have bounced from the April bottom when US crude ended one day in negative territory. Prices now are about half January’s level.

Lonestar Resources is putting oil in storage tanks that typically hold brackish water, said Chief Executive Frank Bracken, counting on a price rebound.

Still, Bracken said, “royalty owners are going to see vastly diminished paychecks.”

This year’s crash might be much worse than recent downturns, said Amanda Weinstein, assistant professor of economics at the University of Akron, who has studied shale booms. Young people who lose jobs may “feel like there’s not as much for them in that town anymore,” and leave.

Williston, North Dakota, center of the Bakken shale field, was so devastated by the 1980s bust that it lagged the nation in economic growth until shale started there around 2006, Weinstein said.

At the Helena ghost town, oil royalties donated by Ruckman and others fixed a historic home whose porch had been propped up with a telephone pole. The historical society had hoped to spruce up the attraction with a visitor’s pavilion and new restrooms, said Trip Ruckman, Paul Ruckman’s cousin.

“Some plans are on hold given the situation,” he said.


Iran rial slides to new low as coronavirus, sanctions weigh

Updated 04 July 2020

Iran rial slides to new low as coronavirus, sanctions weigh

  • The dollar was offered for as much as 215,500 rials, softening from 208,200 on Friday
  • The rial lost about 70% of its value in the months after May 2018 as Iranians snapped up dollars

DUBAI: The Iranian rial fell to a new low against the US dollar on the unofficial market on Saturday, as the economy comes under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic and US sanctions.
The dollar was offered for as much as 215,500 rials, softening from 208,200 on Friday, according to foreign exchange site Bonbast.com. The economic daily Donya-e-Eqtesad’s website gave the dollar rate as 215,250, compared with 207,500 on Friday.
In May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from a multilateral deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program and reimposed sanctions that have since battered the economy.
A drop in oil prices and a slump in the global economy have deepened the economic crisis in the country, which also has the highest death toll in the Middle East from the pandemic.
The rial’s decline has continued despite assurances from Iranian Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemmati last week that the bank had injected hundreds of millions of dollars to stabilize the currency market.
The rial lost about 70% of its value in the months after May 2018 as Iranians snapped up dollars, fearing Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and sanctions could shrink vital oil exports and severely impact the economy.
The official exchange rate is 42,000 rials per dollar and is used mostly for imports of state-subsidised food and medicine.