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The oil and gas industry will continue zeroing in on the Eagle Ford Shale, investing an estimated $28 billion in the South Texas region next year.
The field has emerged as among the hottest in the nation for crude oil production. But a new report from Wood Mackenzie, a global energy research firm, puts the mammoth infusion into perspective: 27 percent of the industry’s capital investment in the lower 48 states next year will go to the Eagle Ford.
“When you throw out a number like $28 billion, it’s a phenomenal amount going into this area of Texas,” said Callan McMahon, an analyst for Wood Mackenzie in Houston.
The spending will go for everything from drilling and hydraulic fracturing to building pipelines to coastal refineries.
Between 2012 and 2015, the industry likely will sink more than $116 billion into the Eagle Ford — more than the cost of developing the Kashagan offshore field in Kazakhstan, which has been called the world’s most expensive standalone energy project.
Companies are chasing crude oil and natural gas liquids production – especially in the sweet spots of Karnes, Gonzales and DeWitt counties, which are producing half of the play’s liquids, he said.
Friday, the Baker Hughes Rig Count showed 238 drilling rigs working in the Eagle Ford, including 37 in Karnes County, 24 in Gonzales County and 22 in DeWitt County.
Eric Potter, an associate director at the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin, said that the Eagle Ford appears to have plenty of space for more wells and associated investment, even in areas that have already snagged the industry’s attention.
“You have continued great success in the quality of wells,” Potter said. “There seems to be quite a bit of running room in terms of area for new wells, and that’s just the drilling and completion part. Then you have all the expenses for gas and oil gathering and processing, and ultimately transportation to refineries.”
The industry has shifted drilling away from “dry gas” shale plays and towards liquids-rich fields, and that’s one reason companies plan to spend so much in the Eagle Ford, the report says.
The Eagle Ford generally produces more oil on its northern arc; more natural gas, or dry gas, on its southern arc; and more natural gas liquids such as propane and butane in-between.
Eagle Ford wells generally bring up a bit of everything, but those that bring up a higher percentage of liquids are much more profitable.
Natural gas prices are below $4 per million British thermal units, down from $12 in 2008. And dry gas sits at greater depths, making those wells more expensive to drill than liquids wells.
McMahon also said that the best spots of the Eagle Ford produce a light crude oil that flows at a good rate from the well. “Think of it like a sponge. If you have water in a sponge, you can get the water out more easily,” he said. “If you have honey in a sponge it’s a lot more difficult to extract.”
Thomas Tunstall, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who has studied the economic impact of the shale play, said the Eagle Ford and other fields are subject to potential oil price fluctuations. Tunstall is watching for any slowdowns in Europe or China that could depress the price of oil and slow down drilling activity.
“If there will be less demand for oil, that means the price will go down as well,” Tunstall said.
Benchmark crude fell 33 cents to finish at $85.93 per barrel Friday.
But even if oil prices drop, McMahon said the Eagle Ford sits in a better position than the Permian Basin or other landlocked shale fields.
“The Eagle Ford is very well positioned near the coast,” McMahon said. “It’s a huge advantage as far as oil prices go.”
Some operators can break even at $40 per barrel oil on the lowest end. But McMahon said the quality and location of a company’s mineral lease is key. Some companies have not been able to drill economically even at $85 oil.
“Some operators have already pulled out of the play,” he said. “It’s very much dependent on your acreage position. You have to be able to execute as well.”
McMahon said gas would have to reach around $6 per million British thermal units for gas drilling in the Eagle Ford, in general, to become economic.
EOG Resources, BHP Billiton and ConocoPhillips — the three biggest players in the Eagle Ford — have a combined $30 billion in oil and gas still to drill in the Eagle Ford.
“The top three are really out front,” McMahon said. The top five companies, which include Marathon Oil Co. and SM Energy, have about $40 billion combined in value in the field — about the value of BP’s offshore Gulf of Mexico portfolio, he said.
Eagle Ford production topped 1 million barrels of oil equivalent per day in the third quarter.