Viability of Fracking at $50 per Barrel: Confronting Challenges
Can fracking survive at $50 a barrel? Let’s explore the challenges and implications of low oil prices on fracking. Fracking extracts oil from dense rock formations but has higher extraction costs compared to traditional methods. The volatility of oil and natural gas prices, driven by supply and demand, complicates the economic feasibility of fracking. It is highly profitable at higher oil prices but less viable as prices drop. Fracking also faces environmental concerns and negative public perception, adding to the challenges for oil and gas companies.
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is employed to extract oil from dense rock or sand formations where conventional drilling methods are unfeasible. This process, though effective, tends to incur higher extraction costs compared to traditional methods. Given the recent drop in oil prices, the question arises: can fracking remain economically viable?
Fracking Process and Costs
Oil extraction traditionally involves drilling into underground reservoirs, but when oil is trapped within solid formations like shale or oil sands, hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, becomes necessary. Shale oil and tight oil refer to oil found in these dense formations. In the fracking process, a drilling team bores into the rock and injects a high-pressure chemical fluid into the small fissures within the shale, causing it to fracture. This fracturing releases the oil and natural gas, enabling extraction.
It's important to highlight that the costs associated with equipment, the fracturing procedure, and subsequent cleanup in fracking significantly exceed those of conventional liquid crude oil drilling.
Volatility of Oil and Natural Gas Prices
Oil and natural gas prices are highly volatile, driven by factors like supply, demand, and geopolitical events. These commodities are actively traded on public markets, such as the NYMEX, and their prices fluctuate accordingly.
The increasing global demand for energy, particularly from developing countries like China, is expected to drive prices up. Conversely, an increase in the oil and gas supply, due to the discovery of new sources worldwide, can lead to price decreases. In the past year, we've witnessed a significant drop in oil prices due to shifts in supply and demand.
Currently, oil is priced at approximately $100 per barrel, but this figure can change rapidly. For the most up-to-date energy and oil prices, you can refer to sources like Bloomberg.
In 2011, crude oil traded at nearly $120 per barrel on the NYMEX. High oil prices persisted until mid-2014 when they plummeted from $100 per barrel to less than $50. While consumers celebrated lower gas prices, oil and gas producers faced challenges to maintain profitability.
Fracking proves highly profitable at $120 per barrel but becomes less viable as prices drop. The costliest U.S. oil production originates from aging "stripper wells," producing only a few barrels daily, which cease to be profitable at around $40 per barrel. Other high-cost sources include Canada's tar sands and the UK's North Sea oil fields, which become unprofitable around $30 and $50 per barrel, respectively.
Fracking is expensive but still more cost-effective than the methods used in the aforementioned wells. Estimates for fracking's break-even point range from $30 to $50 per barrel. While exploration and initial drilling are less likely below the $50 per barrel mark, existing fracking operations can remain cash-flow positive after these initial phases, even with lower prices.
Fracking and Environmental Concerns
Oil and gas companies face additional considerations beyond the direct expenses of finding, drilling, and extracting oil through fracking. Fracking has garnered a negative reputation, and global environmental advocates are urging both governments and oil firms to cease these operations.
Both sides present compelling arguments based on scientific evidence. Critics contend that the chemicals used in fracking pose severe health risks to nearby residents, potentially contaminating their drinking water. Moreover, fracking has been linked to minor seismic activity.
Advocates, on the other hand, assert that health and environmental concerns lack substantial proof and that fracking is entirely safe. The actual situation likely falls somewhere in between, but the pressure from communities and government entities results in costly lobbying efforts for oil and gas companies, unlike other extraction methods.
Despite declining oil and gas prices prompting producers to seek cost reductions, fracking remains viable at prices below $50 per barrel. While new exploration and production may decline, and higher-cost wells have been closed, the fracking industry as a whole will endure for the foreseeable future.