Bloomberg Oil and Gas

Millions of Barrels of Oil Are About to Vanish
April 20, 2023 – 12:56 pm

Millions of barrels of untapped oil that U.S. shale drillers discovered during the boom years are about to disappear from their inventories.

Six years ago, the industry to make it easier for companies to claim proved reserves for wells that wouldn’t be drilled for years. Some prospects considered sure-things when crude was $95 a barrel are money losers at today’s $60. When crude crashed in 2008, 44 U.S. companies wiped 630 million barrels from their books.

Now the stakes are higher. Of all the proved reserves of oil and natural gas liquids found by the 44 companies since 2008, more than half - 5.4 billion barrels out of the 9.7 billion - is attributed to wells that don’t exist yet, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“We’re going to see a lot of proved undeveloped reserves get vaporized, ” said Ed Hirs, a managing director at Houston-based Hillhouse Resources LLC, an independent energy company, who also teaches energy economics at the University of Houston. “It could easily be 10 or 20 years before some of these wells get drilled if prices stay at these levels.”

The shale boom has pushed U.S. oil production to the highest in more than 40 years and slashed the country’s reliance on imported fuel. The untapped resources are viewed by investors and lenders as a sign of a company’s growth potential, and helped the industry attract more than $230 billion in bonds, loans and share sales since the end of 2008.

Growing Reserves

While undrilled prospects have always been part of oil companies’ inventories, they’ve become a much larger share since the SEC changed the rules. Undeveloped properties account for 43 percent of proved reserves for the 44 companies, the data show, up from 26 percent at the end of 2008.

The SEC limits proved reserves to those resources that companies are reasonably certain can be profitably extracted with existing technology. The estimates are based on prices, geology, engineering and the historical performance of similar wells.

Fracking pioneers such as Devon Energy Corp. and Chesapeake Energy Corp., both based in Oklahoma City, were among the oil and natural gas producers that to make it easier to book undeveloped reserves. Before the rule changed, untapped wells typically needed to be close to a producing property.

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