By Jennifer Hiller
HOUSTON (Reuters) - U.S. shale producers have added millions of barrels to global crude supply in recent years, but that does not mean they can quickly replace barrels lost from weekend attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities, energy experts said on Sunday.
Shale producers this year have been cutting budgets and workers and trimming production goals after years of heavy spending. They remain under intense pressure from investors to restrain spending and return money to shareholders through buybacks and dividends rather than expand drilling.
Shale is a short-cycle oil supply - one able to add or reduce production relatively quickly. Producers will see increased demand, especially from Asian buyers. But producers need 90 to 180 days to drill, complete and bring new production online.
There are about 1,000 Permian wells that have been drilled but not completed or hooked up to pipelines, said Bernadette Johnson, vice president of market intelligence at consultants Enverus.
Shale "cannot simply open up the spigot," she said, adding: "The infrastructure simply isn’t there yet to get it to the coast."
Representatives for Exxon Mobil Corp <XOM.N>, Royal Dutch Shell <RDSa.L> and Chevron Corp <CVX.N>, which all produce shale, declined to comment on the potential impact on their operations.
If the attacks lead to sustained U.S. oil prices in the mid-$60-a-barrel range, it could cause U.S. output to grow by about 2 million barrels per day (bpd) next year, from about 1 million bpd this year, Johnson said.
U.S. oil companies could see some benefit. The strikes in Saudi Arabia knocked out oil-processing facilities and production at the Khurais oilfield, which produces a light oil similar to what shale producers offer.
The Eagle Ford Shale field in South Texas has the ability to add to supplies and prices in the mid-$60s would cause companies operating there to add rigs gradually. Still, its ultralight, sweet barrels are not similar enough to be a good substitute for lost Arab Light oil, Johnson said.
Shale producers generally could use the expected jump in crude prices to add hedges, or contracts that lock in future prices, allowing them to capture some of the expected price increases, said Matt Portillo, managing director at investment bank Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co.
“Producers will take the higher prices and essentially bank that to balance-sheet repair or to accelerating shareholder returns,” Portillo said.
U.S. oil companies operating in the Permian Basin will not "be changing their plans this week based on what happened in Saudi Arabia," said Andy Lipow, president of consultancy Lipow Oil Associates.
(Reporting by Jennifer Hiller; Editing by Peter Cooney)