The whole global edifice erected with oil profits is trembling and cracking while the people responsible for its imminent implosion refuse to even get under their desks, insisting that there is no problem. This crash that is already under way is not the ultimate one that will bring down the Industrial Age, not quite yet, but it is going to drop us from the rubble-strewn “new normal” of the post-2008 Great Recession to the cratered moonscape of the newer normal that will follow the Crash of 2015. The problem in 2008 was subprime home loans. The problem now is subprime oil wells.
The trigger for the detonators that are setting off the charges that will bring down the oil “boom” was, of course, the gut-wrenching decline in oil prices, which on Friday reached $66 a barrel in the US, a 40% decline in just a few months. That price is below the break-even point for two of the major US plays — North Dakota’s Bakken (the biggest) and the Permian Basin in Texas. The situation is far worse in the Canadian tar sands, where costs are the highest of all. And may soon be even worse in the petro-states, whose mostly tyrannical leaders can still produce oil at a profit, but who need every nickel that $100-a-barrel oil was bringing in to keep their palaces safe from riffraff bearing pitchforks and torches. Saudi Arabia and Iran are wounded, Libya is in intensive care and Venezuela is in hospice.
Although the shale frackers, tar-sands cookers and deepwater drillers are keeping up a deafening chorus of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” on the world’s airwaves, if you listen carefully when they draw breath you can hear the cracking of the beams of the stage on which they’re standing. Some examples:
- In the 12 major American shale-oil plays, permits for new wells fell by 15 per cent in October, after doubling since November of last year. In the Eagle Ford play in Texas, source of about 40% of the current fracking “boom,” the decline was 22%. The total number of oil rigs operating in November — 1568 — was down by 50 rigs in a month and was expected to be down by 100 at year’s end. Given the hideous depletion rates of fracked wells — about 80% in the first two years — new wells must be opened at ever increasing rates just to keep production level. If these declines in new wells and operating wells continue for just a few months we will see sharp declines in shale oil production next year.
- The stock prices of nine of the larger operators in the shale patch lost between 19% and 34% of their value — on Friday. They are all down about 60% since mid-summer. Worrisome as this loss in equity is, it pales in comparison with what happens once the bond markets take fright. The fracking boom has sucked up much of the liquidity sloshing around the country looking for better returns than US Treasuries offer. The frackers have financed their unbelievably expensive operations not with profits nor with stock sales but with junk bonds, whose owners are not unlike a herd of longhorns on the Texas plains: one lightning strike, they’re gone.
Any of the events described above constitutes a lightning strike. Maybe they’re waiting to hear the thunderclap.
When it comes, the falling dominoes will not stop at the edge of the fracking fields but will tumble into the territory of Big Oil, whose titans are also deeply in debt, and on into the general stock market, whose movers and shakers are certifiably insane.
Like the laid-off owner of an under-water home (that is, a home worth less than the mortgage on it) going into foreclosure, the oil bidness is hunkered down, insisting everything is going to be all right, waiting for the sheriff.
[UPDATE 12/04/14: Applications for new oil-well permits in the United States declined almost 40 percent between October and November, as reported by Reuters. This presages a corresponding drop in rig counts, and production, which will appear in 60-90 days. Welcome to 2015.]