U.S. shale oil boom turns to gloom with output to fall

An employee works at the base of drill pipes on an oil drilling derrick in the Salym Petroleum Development oil fields in Salym, Russia. A growing consensus is emerging from the likes of BP, the International Energy Agency, shale wildcatters and even the Saudis that a near-term recovery to $100-a-barrel crude isn’t in the cards, with a range of $50 to $60 for at least the next few years. Bloomberg News photo by Andrey Rudakov).

HOUSTON — The shale oil boom that pushed U.S. crude production to the highest level in four decades is grinding to a halt.

Output from the prolific tight-rock formations such as North Dakota’s Bakken shale will decline 57,000 barrels a day in May, the Energy Information Administration said Monday. It’s the first time the agency has forecast a drop in output since it began issuing a monthly drilling productivity report in 2013.

Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and IHS have projected that U.S. oil production growth will end, at least temporarily, with futures near a six-year low. The plunge in prices has already forced half the country’s drilling rigs offline and wiped out thousands of jobs. The retreat in America’s oil boom is necessary to correct a supply glut and rebalance global oil markets, according to Goldman.

“We’re going off an inevitable cliff” because of the shrinking rig counts, Carl Larry, head of oil and gas for Frost & Sullivan, said by phone from Houston on Monday. “The question is how fast is the decline going to go. If it’s fast, if it’s steep, there could be a big jump in the market.”

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West Texas Intermediate crude for May delivery climbed 27 cents Monday to settle at $51.91 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices are down 50 percent from a year ago.

The decline in domestic production will come just as U.S. refineries start processing more oil following seasonal maintenance, easing the biggest glut since 1930. The withdrawal from U.S. oil stockpiles is expected to bring relief to a market that’s seen prices drop by more than $50 a barrel since June.

The relief may prove temporary as U.S. drillers are building a backlog of drilled wells that they plan to hydraulically fracture and place into service as soon as prices rebound. Analysts including Wood Mackenzie have estimated that the inventory has grown to more than 3,000 uncompleted wells.

“U.S. production can return quickly with any price recovery,” Adam Longson, an analyst at Morgan Stanley in New York, said in an April 13 research note. “A backlog of uncompleted wells, falling service costs, hedging opportunities and plenty of capital on the sidelines should all support investment, perhaps more than the market expects.”

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The EIA’s May production forecasts cover the yield from major plays that together accounted for 90 percent of domestic output growth from 2011 to 2012.

Output from the Eagle Ford in Texas, the second-largest oil field in the U.S., is expected to fall 33,000 barrels a day in May to 1.69 million. Production in the Bakken region of North Dakota will decline 23,000 to 1.3 million, the EIA said.

Yield from the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico, the largest U.S. oil field, will continue to rise, by 11,000 barrels a day to 1.99 million.

The EIA’s oil-production estimates are based on the number of rigs drilling in each play and estimates on how productive they are. The numbers of oil rigs in service across the country slid 42 last week to 760, the fewest since December 2010, Houston-based field services company Baker Hughes Inc. said.

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Deutsche Bank forecast in a research note last week that production in May will mark “an important inflection point for the U.S. oil market.”

Advances in oil-drilling technologies are no longer enough to offset the rigs being idled by U.S. producers, Paul Horsnell, global head of commodities research at Standard Chartered Plc in London, said in an April 13 research note. Shale production is probably already falling, with total U.S. output set to shrink by 70,000 barrels a day from May to June, he said.

“The deceleration in U.S. output has been greater than the market is currently pricing in,” Horsnell said in the report. “Global rebalancing is in full swing.”