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US Oil Boom

By Scott Wright
October 1st, 2011

With the world forging ahead in this modern industrial and technological era, the king of commodities continues to flex its muscles as the most indispensable of resources. Oil, the lubricant of global commerce, is seeing record levels of demand.

Amazingly global oil demand is up nearly 50% in just the last 25 years. In 2010 it is estimated that a record 87m barrels per day (bpd) were consumed, surpassing the previous high from 2007. And it is forecasted that 2011ís will come in even higher, at around 89m bpd.

And regardless of the current state of the global economy, oil consumption will continue to rise over time. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), world oil demand is expected climb to between 108m to 115m bpd in the next 25 years. This range accounts for a low-side oil price of $50, and a high-side price of $200. Even on the low side, demand is expected to grow by a hearty 21% from todayís levels.

Needless to say, this forecast is quite ominous in an environment where big oil deposits are getting harder and harder to find. And as theyíve always done, oilís biggest consumers are jockeying to sustain and grow their own supplies.

No other country has more of an appetite for oil than the United States. The US consumes about 22% of the global total, to the tune of about 19m bpd. This sum is 35% higher than the European Union, the next-highest consumer, and nearly twice that of third-place China. As a major consumer, the US needs to stay on top of where tomorrowís oil is going to come from.

Procuring supply is especially important for the US considering its lack of self-sufficiency. Interestingly the US saw its peak in production way back in 1970, at about 9.6m bpd. At this clip it only needed to import about 1.3m bpd to supplement domestic demand. But with its mature fields depleting and a lack of material discoveries to renew reserves and thus feed offsetting development, the US suddenly found itself in need of a much-bigger portion of supplemental supply.

With post-1970 production declining and demand continuing to rise, this supplemental supply came in the form of sharply-accelerating imports. Incredibly US oil imports had doubled in only a couple years, and by 1977 they had increased five-fold. From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s imports tailed off a bit, but they eventually continued to rise. And by 1994 US crude-oil imports exceeded domestic production for the first time ever.

In the years following this historic event, the prevailing trends would endure and the balance of trade would shift well in favor of foreign oil. And by 2005 oil imports were nearly double the volume that domestic producers were able to wrest from within the USís borders. But as you can see in the chart below, it was around this time that a strategic shift in trends would manifest.

By 2005 US imports had topped 10m bpd, 665% more oil than what this country was buying from foreigners back in 1970. But this 2005 top was the highest imports would get. Provocatively, over the last six years imports have actually been trending down! Over this span the US has seen imports drop by 1.3m bpd, a material 13% drop from their apex. And based on the annualizing of official data from the EIA over the first half of this year, 2011ís imports will be the lowest since 1999.

An extended decline in imports the likes of which weíre seeing today hasnít occurred at this magnitude since the first half of the 1980s. Back then oil supplies were at a big surplus as a result of the 1970s energy crisis. In addition to this oversupply, demand was down as folks were forced to conserve energy thanks to higher fuel prices. But this so-called ď1980s Oil GlutĒ was of course only temporary.

There are two major reasons for this latest decline in imports. And like the situation in the 1980s, the first is a demand decline subsequent to the 2005 peak. As a result of higher oil prices and economic turbulence, US oil consumption is actually down a bit in recent years. But the second and perhaps more important reason for falling imports is an increase in domestic production.

Following its 1970 peak, the US had seen oil production fall by a painful 49% to its 2008 low of 4.95m bpd. Youíd have to go back to 1946 to find the last time the US had sub-5.0m-bpd production volume. Back then the US was producing about half of the worldís oil, a stark contrast from 2008 volume in which it only produced 6% of the total global supply.

Over the last 40+ years many of the USís big mature fields had become depleted, new major discoveries were few and far between, costs were rising to tap the deeper and/or unconventional reservoirs, and foreign oil was cheaper to buy. The USís production decline was deemed irreversible, and this country had come to grips that its oil dependence would need an ever-larger fix from foreign sources.

But while the US will likely always be dependent on some level of foreign oil to bridge its supply gap, the deliverance of production growth in 2009 squashed the notion of an irreversible downward trend. And 2009ís 8.3% increase in production to 5.4m bpd not only broke a streak of 17 consecutive years of declines, it started a new trend that is showing this reversal to be the real thing.

Based on annualized production figures from the first half of 2011, the US is on pace for its third consecutive year of production growth. Over this time domestic production will have grown by 12%, adding nearly 600k bpd. And it is expected that this trend will continue for many years to come. The EIA sees US production exceeding 6.0m bpd by 2018, with the possibility of exceeding 7.0m bpd by about 2025. And many experts believe these volume estimates to be conservative.

There are a couple of key factors that have contributed to the USís recent growth in domestic oil production. And the most important is higher oil prices. Preceding the commencement of oilís secular bull in 1999 was a brutal secular bear. Oil prices remained low for many years, averaging $26.50 in the 1980s and $19.70 in the 1990s. Over these bear years there was little economic incentive to explore and develop.

But oil prices flow and ebb with the best of the major commodities. And upon the turn of the century oil caught a major bid that gave huge incentive to revisit what was thought to be a dying US oil industry. Major global conglomerates and small entrepreneurs alike started dedicating resources to rediscovering opportunity in the US. And boy have they found it!

Higher prices indeed empowered oil companies to pursue the revival of the US oil industry. And this brought on technological innovations that have directly translated into production growth. More specifically, advances in horizontal-drilling and hydraulic-fracturing methods have opened up vast resources within large shale-oil formations that underlie the US.

Interestingly horizontal drilling is not new. In fact, it has been a work-in-progress in the oil industry for over 50 years. Whatís really revolutionized this method of recent is vast improvements in drilling equipment and radical innovations in down-hole monitoring instrumentation. Drillers can now guide their bits at the precise angles/degrees to access longer portions of deep thin/tight reservoirs.

And precision horizontal drilling has come in real handy when trying to recover oil from massive shale formations like the prolific Bakken field that underlies the Williston Basin in North Dakota and Montana. Bakkenís thin band of continuous crude stretches about 25k square miles, with the main pay zone about two miles below the surface. But since this zone only swells in thickness to about 150 feet at the most, in many spots pinching under 50 feet, historic operators had little success drilling vertical wells.

With horizontal drilling the reservoir is essentially flipped on its side, thus greatly extending the pay zone. So instead of pulling oil from just a small vertical cut of a large thin horizontal reservoir, Bakkenís operators drop their wellbores into this rich formation and extend them laterally. Many of these wells are two miles in length at the lateral!

While horizontal drilling has indeed accessed this formation nicely, the geology of this tight oil-bearing rock requires another major step to bring forth an economic flow of hydrocarbons. Getting oil out of a tight shale body is an active process, it must be encouraged to flow up the well. And to do so an operator must stimulate the host rock via hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Like horizontal drilling, fracking is not new. It too has been around for over 50 years and has been a work-in-progress in the oil industry. But only in recent years have new innovations in fracking allowed formations like the Bakken and the new and exciting deeper Three Forks formation to see wildly-positive economics. Advances in multistage fracking have allowed operators to maximize drainage across the entire lateral, revolutionizing the way petroleum engineers are approaching shale-oil development.

Incredibly operators are still in the early stages of uncovering the Williston Basinís enormous potential. And they are making amazing progress as seen in the Bakkenís robust production growth. Production has grown from practically nothing in the early 2000s to around 400k bpd in 2011. And many are projecting Bakken volume to exceed 1.0m bpd in the not-too-distant future. This is significant and material output that is one of the major reasons for the USís upward trend.

Bakken is the most-recognized of the emerging oil districts, and it has opened the doors to other shale-oil formations in Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah that will farther contribute to the USís growth profile. But new-development shale plays are not the only contributors to this trend. Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) within existing fields is also getting a lot of play.

Interestingly when a conventional oil well is drilled, its initial production flow is driven to the surface via natural underground pressure. This pressure eventually weakens, thus causing the flow to slow and lose its economics. But since primary recovery only recovers a small portion of the oil, itís common practice to force the lift of oil via such methods as pumpjacks and/or re-pressurization (some common secondary methods of re-pressurization include injecting water and/or air into a reservoir).

Secondary recovery captures more of the oil, but even when this method runs its course there is still plenty remaining. EOR, also known as tertiary recovery, ups the ante of maximizing drainage. One of the most common EOR methods is carbon-dioxide flooding. In this method the operators re-pressurize the reservoir (usually with water), and then inject the gas which ultimately addresses the viscosity issues that prevented much of the remaining oil from coming to the surface.

EOR has been around for a while, but since its development requires big upfront capex this method needs sustained higher oil prices. In order to roll out a commercial operation an operator must workover many of the existing production wells, drill injection wells, build a gas plant, develop a transportation network for the large quantities of required gas and water, and develop all other associated infrastructure.

While this process appears cumbersome, it can be quite lucrative. EOR fields can produce bankable flows for decades. And there are a lot of mature fields in the US that are amenable to EOR. Oil companies are of course well aware of this, and theyíve been scrambling to build-out operations. And some of the operations built out over the last decade are starting to bring material production online, which has greatly contributed to the USís recent growth.

Advances in horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and EOR, enabled by higher oil prices, have indeed been major factors in the recent uptrend in US oil production. And this has allowed investors to capitalize on a growth-oriented US oil industry, a 21st-century US oil boom.

Following some exhaustive research centered on one of the sweet spots of the oil-stock sector, Iíve found that this US oil boom has created great opportunities for investors. Over the summer at Zeal we took on a major project to identify the best-of-the-best mid-cap oil stocks that trade in the US and Canada. And many of these elite producers center their operations in the USís lower 48.

In our hot-of-the-presses research report, we fundamentally profile our dozen favorite mid-cap oil stocks. And surprisingly 9 of the 12 have operations in the US, with 7 having the US being their primary area of focus. Several of these stocks are Bakken-centric companies on the cutting edge of technology, and a couple are developing some impressive US EOR operations.

This report also includes several companies that operate in Canada. Interestingly Canada was in the same position as the US back in the early 1970s. It had experienced a peak in production and entered into a decline that most thought was irreversible. But thanks to the advent of profitable oil-sands production not only was there a trend reversal, Canada is now producing at its highest level in history. And this has allowed it to become the USís largest source of foreign oil.

Mid-cap oil stocks really are a high-potential sector for investors. These companies usually recycle all their cash flow and then some into drilling projects, and are typically delivering huge growth at the bit as they strive to one day join the ranks of the major producers. Mid-cappers are also the sweet spot for acquisitions by the majors as they look to spend their hoards of cash.

To find out which high-potential mid-cap oil stocks are our fundamental favorites, buy your report today! This 36-page report ought to really enhance your knowledge of this fascinating industry. Youíll learn a ton about the mechanics of horizontal drilling, fracking, EOR, oil sands, and more!

At Zeal we do this research to better our own knowledge in a given sector, and also to feed trades to our acclaimed subscription newsletters. Since 2001 all 591 stock trades recommended in our weekly and monthly newsletters have averaged annualized realized gains of +51%. Subscribe today! Better your knowledge of todayís markets and get high-potential trade recommendations.

The bottom line is the worldís largest oil consumer is undergoing a radical shift in some long-standing supply trends. The US is seeing its first material decline in imports in a quarter century. And this is partly due to a once-unfathomable rise in domestic production.

Of all the regions in the world amenable to oil development at higher prices, the US is one of the hottest destinations. And technological advances have allowed oil companies to find great success in growing production. In turn, investors are finding that many of the best companies thriving in this movement are fast-growing mid-cap producers.

By Scott Wright
October 1st, 2011

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