The United States is in the middle of a major energy boom. But American shale producers can’t quickly fill the supply gap left by this weekend’s attacks on Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom, which exports more oil than any other country, has been forced to slash its output by 5.7 million barrels per day following the coordinated strikes. That’s more than 5% of global supply.
The world has sufficient commercial stocks to keep markets supplied for now, and countries including the United States could tap their strategic reserves if Saudi production takes longer than expected to come back online.
What traders shouldn’t count on is the American shale industry coming to the rescue.
US production has more than doubled over the past decade thanks to shale. Drilling innovations have opened up new fields, allowing the United States to pump more oil than any other country.
The United States has also become a major energy exporter. US shipments topped 3 million barrels per day in June, briefly pushing the country ahead of Saudi Arabia to become the wold’s largest exporter. But it would take months for the US shale industry to ramp up its production in response to higher prices caused by the attacks on Saudi Arabia.
“There does seem to be this idea in the public’s mind that shale can ramp up supply immediately, and that is simply not the case,” said Bernadette Johnson of Enverus, an energy data analytics company.
Shale producers rely on multiple individual wells, and increasing production means new rigs, completions crews and infrastructure. That’s much more difficult than pumping extra oil from a traditional crude field.
On top of that, US operators have a limited ability to increase production in the massive Permian Basin because of infrastructure bottlenecks.
According to Johnson, a number of pipelines and terminals are under construction. But with the current infrastructure, shale producers couldn’t move much more crude out of the Permian even if they wanted to.
“The infrastructure simply isn’t there yet to get it to the coast, and the coastal export terminals couldn’t handle it either,” she said, adding that there are 1,000 wells in the region that have been drilled but not yet completed.
US shale producers have also been under pressure from investors to cut back on spending and to slow their expansion. Shale stocks have been hammered this year.
Saudi Arabia’s role
The violent spike in crude oil prices on Monday reflects concerns about escalating armed conflict in the Middle East, but it also highlights the crucial role in global markets played by traditional producers in the region.
There are signs that Saudi production could be hampered for an extended period, and two Saudi sources familiar with the kingdom’s oil operations told CNN Business that fully restoring production “will take weeks, not days.”
Most other major producers are already pumping at full bore.
Iran has some spare capacity, but US sanctions make it difficult for the country’s crude to come to market. Venezuela, another potential source of additional supply, suffers from an oil industry in disarray.
According to the International Energy Agency, OPEC had spare capacity of 3.2 million barrels per day prior to the attacks. But roughly two-thirds of that allotment was from Saudi Arabia.
“The world is not even close to being able to replace more than 5 million [barrels per day] of Saudi Arabian exports,” said Bjørnar Tonhaugen, head of oil market research at Rystad Energy.
“The market’s reaction to Saudi Arabia’s importance, in the new era of US shale, will now be put to the test,” he added.
The world will rely on commercial and national crude oil reserves while Saudi Arabia works to bring its supply back online. The Saudi government maintains significant reserves, as does China and the United States.
The IEA, which monitors energy supplies for the world’s richest nations, has helped coordinate three previous releases: before the 1991 Gulf War; after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; and in response to the Libyan Civil War.
“The global flow of crude oil will not be disrupted immediately … however, the longer the [Saudi] processing facility remains disrupted, the larger the potential impact on actual crude flows will be,” said Tonhaugen.