Issue Briefs

US Oil and Gas Sector Hit Hard By Virus, Price War

By Paolo von Schirach

March 18th, 2020

WASHINGTON – Sadly, coronavirus is here in America. All the restrictions announced and feared on most economic activities have created huge disruptions and panic. The entire travel, entertainment and restaurant industries are comatose. Airlines bookings literally collapsed. And now, with most economic activities frozen, there is widespread fear that this may be just the beginning of a massive health and economic crisis –with no timeline.

Even worse for the oil sector

Well, if things are looking ugly for the broader US economy, they are simply disastrous for the US fossil fuel industry, oil in particular. The global economic slowdown began in January when China literally closed down half of its economy. The consequent drop in oil demand from China depressed already low oil prices.

Very low oil prices mean that many low margin small and medium sized US oil companies will go bankrupt. And this is because their extracting costs are far higher than in Saudi Arabia or Russia. Many of them could barely stay alive with oil at $ 50 per barrel. But when crude prices went down from $ 60 to $ 30 the picture looked bleak. And now, with the new development of a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, expect oil (now at around $ 25) to go down to $ 20 per barrel, or even lower. What started as a crisis for the US energy sector in January, just turned into a nightmare.

The incredible impact of the US energy renaissance

Taking a broad view, there is no question that the US energy boom triggered by the 10 year old domestic “fracking revolution” is one of the brightest spots in the US economy. Thanks to fracking, in the space of almost nothing, America, assumed to have only small and rapidly declining reserves in both oil and gas, came back with a gigantic roar; all thanks to its ability to exploit vast amounts of oil and gas until recently deemed to be unrecoverable, due to the prohibitive cost of extraction.

Well, thanks to the revolutionary fracking technologies, unrecoverable oil and gas became recoverable. In just a few years, a large number of small and medium energy companies (Exxon Mobil and Chevron, among others came later) made the US into the world’s largest natural gas producer, and now the biggest oil producer. It is hard to overestimate the positive impact of all this.

New jobs and energy security

Just think about it. Nowadays, we have billions of dollars invested at home, in this dynamic domestic energy sector, instead of being sent out to buy OPEC oil. We also accomplished the creation of “Hemispheric Energy Security”. No, America is not totally energy independent.

However, if you combine this staggering increase in domestic energy production with Canadian and Mexican imports, you realize that nowadays most of America’s energy comes from the Western Hemisphere. This is a huge net plus in terms of improved national security.

Problem: high cost

The big fly in the ointment in all this was and is that shale oil is a high cost, low margin business. And this is a problem. Indeed, mostly on account of a mature, abundantly supplied global energy market, crude prices are now historically low, while many if not most US players in this shale oil sector are over leveraged, and do not make much money.

In fact, some do not make any money at all. Given relatively high operating costs, low oil prices and large debt burdens, the sheer survival of many American small and medium energy companies was highly questionable before the crisis of 2020 began. For these reasons, the energy sector was not very attractive to average investors. Indeed, even in the context of a very robust stock market in 2019, oil stocks were the worst performers.

Energy companies must be profitable

Yes, it is great to celebrate this astonishing American energy renaissance. However, this is a capitalistic economy. Eventually, you have to be profitable to stay in business. Of course, cost cutting and consolidation were happening in this rather fragmented industry. And the sector proved to be much, much more resilient than what many critics had argued. Initially thought to be viable only with oil at $ 60 per barrel or above, many companies can still make money with oil at $ 50 or $ 40. However, some cannot.

The impact of the crisis in China

And then January 2020 came along, with the explosion of the coronavirus epidemic in China. This led to the freezing of the Chinese economy, and the consequent collapse of (already low) oil prices due to drastic demand cuts by its biggest customer. This was bad news for all oil producers and exporters; but really horrible news for the shale oil sector in the US that depends on relatively high crude prices (at least $ 50 per barrel on average) to stay profitable.

Saudi Russia price war

Well, if this were not bad enough, on the heels of the China problem came an unexpected price war between the two main world exporters: Saudi Arabia and Russia. They would not continue their cooperation based on agreed upon production cuts aimed at supporting global oil prices. In fact, with no deal, they decided to turn all the taps on, this way flooding an already over supplied oil market, with a consequent additional price drop.

Well, if oil at $ 40 per barrel was very bad news for many US shale oil producers, you can imagine the impact of oil at $ 25 per barrel, or lower. This is an unmitigated disaster, in the context of a suddenly deteriorated US and world economy.

If this oil price slump lasts much longer, you can expect many bankruptcies, and tens of thousands of American oil workers out of a job, with negative cascading effects on the hundreds of suppliers and vendors that depend heavily on vibrant energy companies buying pipes, drilling equipment, valves, pumps, and what not. Expect collapsed demand for all these oil services, parts and components companies. And, as a sad consequence of all this, expect additional misery and negative ripple effects on so many local economies that had done very well on account of the money brought in by the oil business.

Price war cannot last much longer

The only hope in all this is that this price war cannot last very long because it is unsustainable for both Saudi Arabia and Russia. Indeed, while both countries’ oil industries can still make money even at these extraordinarily low oil prices, both governments cannot afford this.

Russia based its spending plans on oil at $ 50 per barrel. Saudi Arabia needs oil at $ 80 to finance its rather ambitious economic diversification agenda. Here is the thing. Revenue generated by foreign oil sales is almost all these to countries got. Russia may be somewhat better placed, but not in a great position.

US shale sector will take time to recover

Yes, for a while at least, both countries can dip into their dollar reserves to finance the cash shortfall caused by drastically reduced oil revenues. But not indefinitely. In all this, the US shale oil sector is getting hit pretty hard, because its operating costs are much higher than current oil prices.

No way that companies that need oil to be at $ 40 per barrel just to stay alive can keep going much longer with crude hovering around $ 20. In the end, the US shale sector will survive. But only after undergoing painful bankruptcies and consolidations from which only the fittest will survive.

The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.