Global oil prices have largely bottomed out in recent weeks, no longer drastically free falling week to week, but still holding steady around the $50 per barrel mark. In fact, retail gasoline prices actually increased for the week ending Mar. 2 by more than 14 cents, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Despite this slight normalization, it will still be years before oil prices ever reach their 2014 peaks, and even then, it is unlikely that oil ever recovers to those levels. So while prices will increase, they won't do so dramatically, and the increase will only come after current inventory levels decline.
For oil companies to profit in today's climate, the key could lie in the ability for drillers to operate efficiently and diversify their well productivity in new locations. Reuters Market Analyst Jack Kemp noted the gas industry has been able to increase production 27 percent in the last seven years while simultaneously reducing the number of rigs in use by 80 percent.
"Gas companies are focusing on proven, small-scale projects that can deliver results."
These numbers point to the fact that drilling activity has become much more fine-tuned, especially with the recent adoption of analytics and real-time data sharing promoting greater efficiency per well. But while the fracking boom exploded in major shale deposits located in Texas, North Dakota and Pennsylvania, drilling in these regions is no longer as profitable as it once was, so gas companies have begun selling alternative products besides traditional natural gas, according to RigZone.
Waiting for the turnaround
Gas companies are pushing for lifts on bans of liquid natural gas exports so that more of their products can find markets, thus boosting profits. However, current restrictions from the federal government have narrowed down the available markets and companies allowed to export LNG to a select few, cutting off a potential new source of revenue. As a result, gas companies are focusing on proven, small-scale projects that can deliver results.
With smaller projects, companies can make use of their resources and move LNG at an efficient rate that coincides with current market demand, RigZone reported.
"Small-scale facilities use well-known and proven technologies for LNG liquefaction, storage and transfer," said Jorge Ferreiro, regasification specialist with ANCAP, according to RigZone. "The margin for cost-effectiveness lies in the amount of modularization and standardization – that is, design one, build many. Conventional LNG, on the contrary, is always tailor-made – that is, design one, build one."
This strategy of building facilities for the most cost-effective purposes helps gas companies stay profitable – something the oil industry could also make use of. Petroleum exports reached a record high in 2014, mostly from gasoline and gasoline products, the EIA reported. During the same time exports of distillate products declined, giving companies insight into which refined resources are performing better in the marketplace.
But as Kemp noted, higher returns on the sale of oil will only increase considerably once the market value of oil jumps and production picks back up again. Because there is such an enormous oversupply of oil on the current market, drilling has stopped. Once this trend reverses, profitability will return, and on a more efficient basis because oil companies will already be more lean and capable of providing the necessary products to meet demand.
Moving back toward deepwater drilling
EIA data also indicated oil companies are likely to produce more oil in the Gulf region than they have in recent years, according to the Oil & Gas Journal. The fracking boom drew the industry's attention toward shale formations at a time when a moratorium was placed on deepwater drilling due to safety concerns.
However, the Gulf region once more looks to be an area where drillers are going back for more as oil production from the Gulf of Mexico is projected to expand 16 percent and 17 percent in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Further, companies are redeveloping old production sites while also bringing in more investors and business partners to mitigate risks and cut costs, which leads to the higher likelihood of increased returns.
Though today's current environment hampers immediate drilling output, within the next few years, oil and gas activity will return to more stable and reliable levels, providing profits that are more in line with drillers' projections.
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