What Is Holding Back U.S. Oil Production?

In the months leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic, U.S. oil production hit an all-time high of just below 13 million barrels per day (BPD). As the pandemic unfolded, demand collapsed, and production followed. By May 2020, oil production had dropped by more than 3 million BPD to 9.7 million BPD.

Since then, demand has recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Oil production, however, has only partially recovered. The most recent data available from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows current U.S. oil production at ~11.6 million BPD — still 1.4 million BPD short of pre-pandemic production. This shortfall is a major factor that led to the run-up of oil and gasoline prices over the past year.

When the pandemic crushed oil demand in 2020, some oil companies went out of business. Some small stripper wells — which accounts for a respectable amount of U.S. oil production — were permanently capped given the bleak outlook. Some workers left the oil industry.

Now, with oil prices over $100/bbl, many are questioning why production hasn’t bounced all the way back. The Biden Administration has pointed fingers at the oil industry, stating they have stockpiled 9,000 permits they aren’t using. The oil industry says that the problem — in part — is hostile policies of the Biden Administration.

Setting politics aside, here is what we know. The part about the oil industry stockpiling permits — mostly ahead of President Biden taken office — is true. I have reported on this before. However, that doesn’t mean they are sitting on them.

Obtaining a permit is just one step in the chain that ultimately results in oil production. There are many other links in that chain, some of which are still problematic today. Further, they can’t just sit on the permits. There is generally a “use it or lose it” provision that requires them to give up a permit if they don’t develop the lease over a specified period.

Thus, we have oil production that can’t bounce back quickly because some has been shut in, and new production that can’t proceed as quickly due to manpower and material shortages (e.g., fracking sand). It’s not simply that oil companies are sitting on permits. They are working through them. The number of rigs drilling for oil and gas has risen by 60% over the past year. But it can take years for a permit to translate into oil production (if the location even yields oil).

But why did they stockpile so many permits? Stacey Morris, who is Director of Research for midstream index and data provider Alerian elaborated on these issues when I reached out to her for comment:

“The President mentioned thousands of permits on federal lands. The permit number is inflated from stockpiling. Companies stockpiled permits on federal lands leading up to the President’s inauguration, because several Democratic candidates, including the president, supported banning new drilling permits on federal lands. Permits do not equate to production. There are a number of steps between securing a permit and actually bringing a well to production, and issues like labor constraints and fracking sand shortages are added obstacles.”

That leads me to another issue with the oil companies themselves, where Ms. Morris added:

“Investors have demanded that producers maintain capital discipline and grow volumes modestly. Returns have taken priority over growth. Up until recently, a producer planning to significantly grow production volumes would likely have been punished by investors. However, that sentiment may be changing with oil prices where they are and the potential need to replace Russian barrels on the global market.

The geopolitical situation and oil price level may give US producers a license to grow volumes more meaningfully. It takes time for producers to respond to prices, though, and the price signal was not strong enough for E&Ps to potentially veer from their plans for moderate growth until recently. Private producers have been able to ramp upstream activity more meaningfully given that they do not have to answer to a public investor base.”

Oil companies regularly lose money. In four of the past ten years, the oil industry lost money. Big oil lost $76 billion just two years ago. Therefore, they are proceeding with caution. They are maintaining more capital discipline. They aren’t rushing to do projects with the assumption that oil prices will remain above $100/bbl. They are doing projects with the assumption that in a year or more when the projects might pay off, oil prices will have retreated to well below $100/bbl.

On this issue, the Biden Administration is correct. The oil industry is going slow. But this belies a misunderstanding of how long it takes to execute a project. Oil companies don’t have crystal balls. They have to make decisions now based on where they think prices are headed. Because of multiple collapses in oil prices over the past decade, they are proceeding with more caution and capital discipline.

These are issues in which there seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding — which leads to finger-pointing — between the Biden Administration and the oil industry. Given the circumstances, as I wrote previously I believe the Biden Administration should convene a summit with the heads of the major oil companies. There should be frank dialogue, and the outcome should be clearly communicated to the world.

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