Big trouble is brewing in the mighty North Dakota Bakken Oil Field. While oil production in the Bakken has reversed since it bottomed in 2016 and increased over the past few years, so has the amount of by-product wastewater. Now, it’s not an issue if water production increases along with oil. However, it’s a serious RED FLAG if by-product wastewater rises a great deal more than oil.
And… unfortunately, that is exactly what has taken place in the Bakken over the past two years. In the oil industry, they call it, the rising “Water Cut.” Furthermore, the rapid increase in the amount of water to oil from a well or field suggests that peak production is at hand. So, now the shale companies will have an up-hill battle to try to increase or hold production flat as the water cut rises.
According to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, the Bakken produced 201 million barrels of oil in the first six months of 2018. However, it also produced a stunning 268 million barrels of wastewater:
Thus, the companies producing shale oil in the Bakken had to dispose of 268 million barrels of by-product wastewater in just the first half of the year. I have spoken to a few people in the industry, and the estimate is that it cost approximately $4 a barrel to gather, transport and dispose of this wastewater. Which means, the shale companies will have to pay an estimated $2.2 billion just to get rid of their wastewater this year.
Now, some companies may be recycling their wastewater, but this isn’t free. Actually, I have seen estimates that it cost more money to recycle wastewater than it does to simply dispose of it. So, as the volume of wastewater increases while the percentage of oil production declines, then the shale companies are hit with a double-whammy… less oil revenue and rising wastewater disposal costs.
To give you an idea just how much more water is being produced versus oil in the Bakken, I went back to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources and looked at their data back to 2015. Unfortunately, the data published in excel only goes back to 2015, even though they have figures published in PDF form starting in 2003.
Regardless, four years is plenty of time to show just how bad the situation is becoming in the Bakken. In June 2015, the North Dakota Bakken produced 16% more water than oil. However June this year, the Bakken field produced 38% more water than oil:
You will notice that overall oil and water production declined in 2016, due to the falling oil price, but as production grew in 2017 and 2018, the percentage increase of by-product wastewater surged to 32% and 38% respectively. Here is an interesting comparison:
Bakken Oil & Water Production:
June 2015 Oil = 34.4 million barrels
June 2015 Water = 39.8 million barrels (16% more water)
June 2018 Oil = 33.8 million barrels
June 2018 Water = 46.8 million barrels (38% more water)
As we can see, while overall Bakken oil production in June 2018 was less than it was in June 2015, the volume of waster water increased by an additional 7 million barrels.
I believe there are two negative forces at work in the Bakken as it pertains to the rising volume of wastewater.
- As the wells and field age, more water is produced than oil
- Larger Frac Stages, which require more water and sand, are now being utilized to keep production growing or to keep it from falling
While a rising water cut isn’t a surprise to the industry as it is a natural progression of an aging oil well or field, the use of Larger Frac Stage wells should be a WAKE-UP CALL to investors. Why? Because Larger Frac Stage wells consume a great deal more water and sand to produce more oil initially, but the decline rates are even more severe than regular shale wells.
So, when the Investor Relations are bragging how the companies are using newer technology of more complex Large Frac Stage wells, this isn’t a good sign. This means that the company is now desperate to try and grow production, or at worst, to keep it from falling.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Shale Industry is in serious trouble. Most of the shale fields have reached a peak and when production starts to decline, especially during a collapsing oil price, I forecast a rapid disintegration of the industry. We must remember, as the oil price and oil production falls, then company stock and asset values will plummet while the high debt levels remain. Thus, the shale industry will have increasing difficulty in servicing its debt.
I will continue to monitor the production of oil and wastewater in the Bakken. Please check back for updates.
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