Weakening global economy and slowing oil demand growth, coupled with growing U.S. shale production, have pushed the oil glut narrative to the top of the media and analyst attention this year.
In a few years’ time, however, the top concern on the oil market could very well be insufficient oil supply that could drive prices higher.
The persistent oversupply led to OPEC rolling over the production cuts into next year and replaced concerns about a looming global oil supply crunch due to chronic underinvestment in replenishing conventional oil reserves.
The stubborn oversupply and faltering demand have depressed oil prices for most of this year. The lower oil prices, however, have also started to challenge the growth pace of the largest source of oil supply increase in the world—U.S. shale.
American oil production is set to increase over the next few years, but it could peak in the early 2020s, Seeking Alpha contributor Rob Pinkerton argues. According to oil industry professional Pinkerton, U.S. shale will have drilled out most of the recoverable reserves by 2024, leaving a gap in global oil supply that only newly discovered conventional offshore resources can—to some extent—fill in.
International organizations also put the peak of U.S. shale oil production at some point in the 2020s—although most predict it will be the late 2020s. Organizations, analysts, and major national oil companies of OPEC nations have been warning for a few years that a gap in supply could open up in just a few years as a result of low investments after the oil price crash of 2014.
The slowdown of U.S. shale production growth adds to the narrative that a global supply crunch is coming in half a decade or even sooner, even if OPEC and allies are currently trying to eliminate a global glut amid demand growth concerns.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has recently revised its demand growth estimates for 2019, down by 100,000 bpd to 1.1 million bpd, after seeing that between January and May demand growth was just 520,000 bpd, the lowest increase for the period since 2008.
But the IEA also expects U.S. tight oil production to continue rising through 2025, and “Thereafter, with our current estimate for recoverable resources, production starts to fall gradually.”
Many of the most productive areas in the U.S. will show signs of depletion by the mid-2020s. “This means the average well drilled in 2025 is less productive than today and so a larger number of wells need to be completed to maintain or increase production,” the IEA says.
In its latest World Oil Outlook, OPEC sees non-OPEC supply peaking in the late 2020s, mainly because of expected U.S. tight oil supply peak.
On the other hand, global oil consumption will continue to increase, at least in the next decade, due to demand from petrochemicals, trucking, and aviation. The oil industry will need to double the number of approved conventional oil projects in order to meet the expected growth, the IEA said in its latest World Energy Outlook from November last year.
“Without such a pick-up in investment, US shale production, which has already been expanding at record pace, would have to add more than 10 million barrels a day from today to 2025, the equivalent of adding another Russia to global supply in seven years – which would be an historically unprecedented feat,” the Paris-based agency noted.
But with U.S. shale growth slowing down, and conventional oil investment still much lower than five years ago, a supply gap could open as soon as in the early 2020s.
Despite an uptick in global spending on oil and gas development, the upstream recovery is much slower and shallower than in previous cycles, with current investment levels insufficient to meet future demand growth, energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie said in October last year.
The IEA has estimated that global upstream investment would reach US$505 billion this year, up by 6 percent in nominal terms from 2018. Yet, three years of modestly higher spending still leave this figure nearly US$300 billion lower than the peak reached in 2014, the agency says in its World Energy Investment 2019 report.
Exploration investment may also be turning a corner—after many years of decline, investment in exploration is set to rise by 18 percent to US$60 billion in 2019, according to the IEA, which noted that despite the expected rise in exploration investment, the share of exploration in total upstream investment remains at almost half the level in 2010.
Despite the current global oversupply, an oil shortage may be looming—the result of slowing shale growth and subdued investment in conventional oil resources.