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What Happens If U.S. Shale Goes Bust?

Haley Zaremba

This month has seen a spectacular oil price crash the likes of which we haven't seen in decades. The last time we had since a single day oil price drop as drastic as Monday, March 9 was way back in 1991, when the U.S. launched airstrikes directed at the Iraqi military in response to the invasion of Kuwait. The price drop earlier this month was similarly staggering, with Brent benchmark global oil prices down by 22 percent and United States prices down by 20 percent. 

This cataclysmic crash was caused by a perfect storm of market-spooking factors: the accelerating global spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and the continuing oil price war being waged by Saudi Arabia after the OPEC+ alliance, which formed in 2016 to include Russia, imploded at the beginning of this month. The implosion itself was caused by coronavirus, as the plummeting oil demand caused by the industry- and economy-stalling pandemic led Russia and Saudi Arabia to initiate talks to address the issue, which subsequently led to bitter disagreement and an ultimate disbanding of the alliance and then an all-out price war. 

The oil price war and subsequent crash have had devastating effects on U.S. shale, which was already struggling with diminishing profit margins. “Few U.S. shale firms can withstand prolonged oil price war,” Reuters proclaimed last week. “For the last five years, U.S. shale oil producers have been battling suppliers for lower costs and running equipment and crews hard to drive drilling costs down by about $20 a barrel,” the article reports. “The oil market rout last week, however, has left most shale firms facing prices below their costs of production.”

Subsequent news out of the Permian Basin has been grim, with World Oil reporting this week that “Shale plays, oil patch see tens of thousands of layoffs across the industry.” According to analysis by Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton, tens of thousands of oil industry workers are being laid off across Texas, and World Oil writes that “while workers in just about every industry are threatened by the economic slowdown, few are more at risk than those in the oil patch.”

Related: Barclays Slashes Oil Price Forecast On Demand Shock

This news is what is leading a lot of us to ask, what would happen if the U.S. shale industry goes bankrupt? This is exactly the question that Robert Rapier sets about answering in an opinion column for Forbes this week. “The real consequences of letting the U.S. shale industry fail is to hand global control of oil production back to Saudi Arabia. Millions of Americans will lose jobs, domestic oil production will fall, and our oil imports will soar. Saudi Arabia will then be free to once again withhold production to drive up the price.” While some shale companies in the U.S. will inevitably go bankrupt in the coming months, if too much of the industry fails it could have a lasting negative impact on the United States’ national security. Ultimately, he argues, letting U.S. oil collapse is far too risky in the short term, even if moving away from fossil fuels is, ultimately, a net good.

“Look, you may think the U.S. oil industry deserves to go bankrupt. You may believe we should all be driving around in wind-powered electric vehicles or riding bicycles. But that’s not the world we live in today,” he writes. “Should we use less oil? Yes. And we will over time. But right now the U.S. still uses a lot of oil, and we will continue to do so for several years, even as we transition to electric vehicles.”

On the other hand, as oil is proving to be an increasingly volatile sector, and even Saudi Aramco is talking about peak oil by mid-century, isn’t it high time to let go? As climate action increases, the Financial Times warning that this oil crash is “only a foretaste of what awaits energy industry,” maybe it’s time to read the writing on the wall and more seriously divest from oil in favor of creating jobs and infrastructure in more progressive and forward-leaning energy sectors.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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