Oil Price Collapse Poses Threats to U.S. Shale Gas Boom

The drop in world oil prices, given added impetus by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ (OPEC’s) decision on Nov. 27 not to cut production, may pose a threat to shale gas production in the U.S.

Crude oil prices have fallen substantially since reaching a peak of around $110/barrel this past July, hitting a low of $67/barrel after the OPEC announcement. Though OPEC’s move is widely viewed as an attempt to squeeze the booming U.S. shale oil sector—which has higher production costs than OPEC nations—it carries potential repercussions for natural gas as well.

With shale now providing the largest share of U.S. gas production, according to the Energy Information Administration, several factors may combine to rein in the booming U.S. shale gas sector.

The first threat is in associated gas production (gas produced from oil wells), which ended 2013 at its highest point in two years, much of it coming from shale oil wells. Associated gas currently makes up about one-fifth of total U.S. gas production, though that share has fallen since the 2000s.

The second component is natural gas liquids (NGLs), which have driven much of the current shale gas boom despite falling gas prices because NGLs are worth more than dry gas. Because of their use as petrochemical feedstock, and because—unlike natural gas—they can be exported, the prices of NGLs are sensitive to the global price for crude oil. NGL prices have pulled back this fall as oil prices have dropped.

The third element is overseas natural gas markets, where gas is typically sold under long-term oil-linked contracts. A sustained drop in oil prices, particularly in Asia, calls into doubt plans for U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which are based on the arbitrage between low prices in the U.S. and much higher prices overseas, where gas typically trades above $10/MMBtu.

Because of the added costs of liquefaction and transport, even a small drop in gas prices in Europe makes U.S. LNG exports uneconomic, and could threaten exports to Asia. The changing economics may also blunt calls for speeding the approval process for LNG export terminals, which had seemed a safe bet with the Republican gains in the November elections.

A fourth factor is the threat to the oil and gas service sector. Financial experts have recently begun pointing to increasing speculation in the shale oil sector as a source of caution, as junk-bond investors have poured money into smaller, less-stable companies in hopes of reaping big returns. The percentage of junk-bond debt in the energy sector has jumped substantially since the late 2000s as the shale industry has boomed.

A downturn in oil prices places much of that debt at risk, meaning weaker players in the shale industry are likely to face financial challenges. Industry analysts think most—but not all—of the sector can survive oil prices in the $60/barrel range. Still, a collapse in the junk bond market, if it resulted, would place a big squeeze on financing for new exploration. At the very least, new financing is likely to be more expensive in the near term.

One near-term effect is already showing up in the northeastern U.S., where heating oil prices have plunged this fall even as natural gas prices have begun their traditional spike. The availability of less-expensive heating oil may reduce pressures on the regional gas market that have sent electricity prices up this winter.

Any sustained effects, however, are likely to be some time in coming. Though smaller, weaker outfits may be forced out of business, most players in the shale sector are likely to react by focusing on plays with the best economics and continuing the drive to boost productivity that has driven gas production up even as the gas rig count has fallen by two-thirds since 2011.

—Thomas W. Overton, JD is a POWER associate editor (@thomas_overton, @POWERmagazine).