Tuesday, January 24, 2017

RBN Energy: Top 10 Hydrocarbon Prognostications For 2017

From RBN Energy:
After enduring 2015-16 it is about time for some good news, right?  And that’s just what 2017 is shaping up to be—a relatively good news year for energy markets.  But don’t go crazy with this.  The key word in that sentence is “relatively’” —which means better than 2015-16, but if you are looking for that other “R” word (“recovery”) you won’t see it here.  Crude prices will be up some, but nothing like the first few years of this decade.  Natural gas and NGL prices will be stronger too.  But both may have to wait still another year before seeing a real upswing in 2018.   Nevertheless, 2017 is looking good for most of the energy market.  Not for everyone, mind you.  Many will struggle because their assets are in the wrong places, they are at the wrong end of the food chain, or they were simply unprepared for this new market reality.  How will you know the difference between the winners and losers?    Well of course, by looking deeply into the RBN crystal ball to see what 2017—Year of the Rooster—has in store for us.  Cock-a-doodle-do!

We have a long-standing RBN tradition with this annual Prognostications blog, and unlike many forecasters, we also look back to see how we did with our forecasts the previous year.  Usually we do the look-back and the Prognostications in the same blog, but there is a lot that will be coming at us in 2017.  So this time around we split the blog into two pieces.  Yesterday’s blog, titled The Top 10 RBN Energy Prognostications—2016 Scorecard, was the look back.  We feel our predictions were pretty accurate, with the first half of the year a bit tougher than we expected, and the end of the year a bit better.  Overall, though, we saw modest improvement in prices, somewhat higher rig counts that we would have expected at these prices, and easier access to capital than we would have thought these prices would justify.  That is a good setup for the 2017 Prognostications that we will explore below.
And Now 2017
According to the Chinese calendar, 2015 was “Year of The Goat” and that year certainly lived up to its name.   The Goat was followed in 2016 by “Year of the Monkey”, another pretty good description of energy markets during the year.   So how should we think about 2017, “Year of the Rooster?”  Well, according to some of the Chinese astrology websites, the Year of the Rooster can be lucrative, if you try real hard. And that sounds like a pretty good assessment for the market environment we see in the year ahead.  Definitely on the upswing compared to 2015 and 2016, but the opportunities will only present themselves to the hard-working and well-prepared.

Each year in this Prognostications posting we try to discern a common theme for the year.  Way back in 2013, our theme was surplus, which was a real shocker to a market accustomed to shortage.  The next year, oversupply hit home, and the focus turned to demand—trying to figure out where all those hydrocarbons were going to go.  Twelve months later, we concluded that the theme for 2015 should be price, and that certainly turned out to be true.  In 2016 we broke with tradition and selected two opposing themes for the year: commitment and cash.   The conflict between these two themes is what we saw last year (a) commitments already made to use things, build things and pay for things, and (b) the cash (or lack thereof) to pay for those commitments.

For 2017, our theme is hope, or more specifically A New Hope (sorry, could not resist a Star Wars reference).   That’s right.  RBN is going positive on you.  We are predicting a market where producers can make money at market prices, production volumes increase, and midstream assets start to see some of those volumes they were built to handle.  But like we said in the introductory paragraph, don’t go crazy with this.  The year 2017 will be better than 2015-16.  Oil and gas prices will be higher.  However, don’t be gearing up for a return to the pre-crash market of 2012-14.  In 2017, participants will have to slog it out to achieve profitability.  If they do work hard at the right things in the right places, though, the profits will be there.

Like all good New Year’s top ten lists, we’ll start at #10 and work our way down to #1.

10. We’ll see no crude price breakout in 2017, one way or the other. OPEC and NOPEC will muddle along, announcing cuts, finding creative ways to avoid those cuts, and generally keeping the crude market in limbo.  Which is a lot better than 2015 and most of 2016.  U.S. exploration and production companies (E&Ps) will contribute to the muddle, increasing crude production over time to offset a portion of any real OPEC/NOPEC cuts, and will send personalized notes to the Saudi’s saying “Thanks for the market share.”

9. U.S. crude production in 2017 will increase, but not at the 1 MMb/d a year growth rate seen from 2012-14.  Production growth will be characterized by three factors (Prognostications #9, #8 and #7), the first of which is flattening of the decline curve.  Recall that most shale wells have a very steep decline curve, but only for the first two or three years.  It was that dynamic that we saw playing out during 2016, when production from wells drilled over the preceding two years declined precipitously, which contributed to some of the big drops in production seen in basins like the Eagle Ford (See Good, Bad and The Ugly).   But the decline curves on those wells are starting to flatten out.  In other words, since there have been far fewer wells drilled in the marginal basins since the crash in crude prices, a lot of those existing wells are hitting the flatter part of their decline curve.  Bottom line, production declines from older wells are slowing, which will make it easier for new wells in prolific basins like the Permian to contribute to overall production growth.

8. Rig productivity will continue to improve.  A second factor supporting production growth is rig productivity.  The oil and gas that an individual drilling rig can bring to the market each year has been rising dramatically since the start of the Shale Revolution. For example, from 2011 to 2016 rig productivity was up 260% in the Bakken, 465% in the Permian and 840% in the Niobrara.  These improvements have come not only from producers narrowing their focus to their “sweetest” drilling spots, but more importantly from improvements in drilling and completion technologies, not the least of which have been the use of longer laterals, more sand and more frack stages.   Producers and drilling services companies alike are highly motivated to maximize the volume produced from every dollar spent, and that trend is going to be with us for the foreseeable future.

7. Capital will drive economicsThe third factor supporting production growth is financial—capital will drive economics.   Traditionally it has been the other way around.  Historically, plays with the best economics attracted capital and that is where the drilling took place.  But now that equation is being turned on its head.  Producers with access to capital are building out significant contiguous acreage positions in their core operating areas, which gives them the ability to lower drilling, completion and operating costs.  That is extremely important in the low-price environment producers must deal with today.  It is the low-cost producer that survives and thrives.  What we are seeing is capital being used as a weapon to make strong producers stronger by consolidating strategic geographic positions.  That’s another trend that will be with us for a long time to come....MORE 
Here are their 2016 predictions for comparison:
The Top 10 RBN Energy Prognostications - 2016 Scorecard