US Vastly Overstates Oil Output Forecasts, MIT Study Suggests

US Vastly Overstates Oil Output Forecasts, MIT Study Suggests
Turns out, America's decade-long shale boom might just end up being a little too good to be true.

As recently as 2015, OPEC tried to pump its U.S. rivals out of business, only to blink after shale drillers adapted by reducing costs. On Thursday, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies agreed to maintain oil-output cuts through 2018, extending a campaign to wrest back the global market from America’s shale industry.

Power Struggle

President Donald Trump himself has talked up “energy dominance” as a key policy, with U.S. oil and gas helping supply the world’s power needs.

Of course, the MIT researchers aren’t the first to question the projected growth of U.S. shale. Analysts have long debated varying methods used to predict output. And unsurprisingly, the Saudis have cast doubt on how long the shale boom can last. Even billionaire oilman Harold Hamm recently slammed what he considered EIA’s “exaggerated” forecasts, saying they’re depressing U.S. oil prices. (After all, higher prices are better for the bottom line.)

Yet MIT’s findings stand out by providing some evidence that backs those assertions. The problem with the EIA’s numbers, the researchers say, is that they give drillers too much credit for coming up with ways to improve fracking.

While the EIA’s model assumes that technical advances -- such as well length and the amounts of water and sand used in fracking -- increase output at new wells by roughly 10 percent each year, MIT findings from the Bakken region suggest it’s closer to 6.5 percent, according to Montgomery.

Increasing productivity of each new well matters because it’s the only way to boost output. Typically, production drops precipitously soon after a well is tapped. The EIA recently estimated about half of U.S. oil output came from wells two or fewer years old.

Field of Dreams

So even though output in the Bakken more than tripled from 2012 to mid-2015 on a per-well basis, MIT’s research suggests the main reason is that shale companies abandoned iffier fields to drill in the best acreage following the slump in energy prices. The trend is evident in local North Dakota statistics. Output in still-booming McKenzie County has held steady while neighboring Williams and Mountrail counties have experienced declines.

“There certainly could be some validity to getting a rosier forecast because right now, the industry is working sweet spots,” said Dave Yoxtheimer, a hydrogeologist at Penn State University’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. “When that’s all played out, they’re going to have to go to the tier-two acreage, which isn’t going to be as productive.”

Indeed, some signs of a slowdown have started to emerge. Gas output in the Marcellus basin has fallen 10 percent on a per-rig basis since reaching a high in September 2016. In the Permian, per-rig oil production has decreased almost 20 percent over a similar span.

Richard Bereschik knows firsthand that shale isn’t a sure thing.

The bearded, burly superintendent of schools in Wellsville, Ohio -- a small, Rust Belt community located along the western bank of the Ohio River -- recalls the rush he and other townsfolk experienced when Chesapeake Energy Corp. came through some six years ago, leasing out huge tracts of property for development.

Wellsville sits atop the Marcellus and Utica shale formations and is only 20 miles from a concentration of sweet spots, but Bereschik says Chesapeake stopped renewing leases after the bottom fell out in prices.

“Everyone thought we’d found a goose that laid the golden egg,” Bereschik said. But ultimately, “it’s not the boom we all expected.”

With assistance from Ryan Collins.To contact the reporters on this story: Jim Polson in New York at; Tim Loh in New York at To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lynn Doan at Michael Tsang, Melinda Grenier.


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