Category Archives: Shale Oil

Saudi Arabia Declares Oil War on US Fracking, hits Railroads, Tank-Car Makers, Canada, Russia; Sinks Venezuela

by Wolf Richter • December 1, 2014

When OPEC announced on Thanksgiving Day that it would maintain oil production at 30 million barrels per day, chaos broke out in the oil market, and the price of oil around the globe spiraled into a terrific plunge. The unity of OPEC, if there ever was such a thing, was in tatters with Saudi oil minister smiling victoriously, and with a steaming Venezuelan oil minister thinking of the turmoil his country is facing [OPEC Refuses to Cut Production, Oil Plunges off the Chart].

The bloodletting in the oil markets on Thursday led to some wobbly stability on Friday, and for a while it seemed oil had found a bottom, but then the US stock market closed early while crude continued trading, and suddenly all heck re-broke loose, and the US benchmark WTI plunged again and broke the $66-a-barrel mark before coming to a rest at $66.06. After a near 10% dive in two days, WTI is now down 37% since June!

This chart shows the Thanksgiving plunge following OPEC’s decision, the deceptive stability Friday, and the afterhours plunge:

Now more information has emerged, confirming prior “rumors” and “conspiracy theories.”

During the closed-door meetings in Vienna, Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi told OPEC members that OPEC had to combat the US fracking boom. If OPEC cut output to raise the price of oil, it would lose market share, he argued. The way to win would be to allow overproduction to depress prices to the point where they would destroy the profitability of North American producers. And they’d have to cut production, rather than OPEC.

With Saudi Arabia’s overwhelming power within OPEC, his argument won against objections from desperate members, such as Venezuela, Iran, and Algeria, which wanted a production cut to push prices back up.

“Naimi spoke about market share rivalry with the United States, and those who wanted a cut understood that there was no option to achieve it because the Saudis want a market share battle,” a source told Reuters to make sure the message got out.

Asked if this was a response to rising US production, OPEC Secretary General Abdullah al-Badri essentially confirmed OPEC had entered the oil war against the American shale revolution: “We answered,” he said. “We keep the same production. There is an answer here.”

The bloodletting is spreading.

While the US fracking boom is the official target, Canada’s tar-sands producers are getting hit the hardest. The process is expensive. Their production is largely land-locked and often has to be transported to distant refiners in Canada and the US by costly oil trains. Yet these high-cost producers are getting the least for their oil: The heavy-oil benchmark Western Canada Select (WCS) traded for $48.40 per barrel on Friday, down over 40% from June, the cheapest oil in the world.

Their shares got knocked down in sync: For example, Suncor Energy dropped 9% on Friday, down 27% since June; and Canadian Natural Resources dropped nearly 10% for the day, down 28% since June.

The US shale oil revolution is bleeding as well. Shares across the board are getting hit, many of them outright eviscerated. If the word “plunge” occurs a lot, it’s because that’s what these stocks did on Friday.

  • Goodrich Petroleum plunged 34% on Friday; down 80% from June.
  • Sanchez Energy plunged 29.5% on Friday, down 71% from June.
  • Clayton Williams Energy plunged 25.6% on Friday, down 61% from May.
  • Callon Petroleum plunged 18.6% on Friday, down 60% from June.
  • Laredo Petroleum plunged 33.5% on Friday, down 66.5% from June.
  • Oasis Petroleum plunged 27.2% on Friday, down 68% from July.
  • Stone Energy plunged 24.1% on Friday, down 68% from April.
  • Triangle Petroleum plunged 25.6% on Friday, down 62% from June.
  • EP Energy plunged 25.3% on Friday, down 54% from June.

The list goes on. Even large oil companies got clobbered:

  • Exxon Mobil down 4.2% for the day and 13% from July.
  • ConocoPhillips down 6.7% for the day and 24% from July.
  • Marathon Oil down 11% for the day and 31% from early September.
  • Occidental Petroleum down 7.4% for the day and 24% from June.
  • Anadarko Petroleum down 10.5% for the day and 30% since late August.
Then there is the Oil Service sector.

The Market Vectors Oil Services ETF dropped 8.9% for the day and has plummeted 34% from June. The current standout is its 10th-most heavily weighted component, Norway-based SeaDrill which had announced that it would cut its dividend to zero to deal with its mountain of debt, given the current environment. Its shares swooned on Thursday and Friday a total of 28% and are now down 70% from a year ago. The whole sector followed. This is what debt can do when the going gets tough.

Those are among the official targets of OPEC’s scorched-earth oil war. They’ve been hit, and they’re taking on water.

There is collateral damage.

With increasing amounts of oil being carried by oil trains, the railroads, which had been trading near their exuberant 52-week highs in large part due to the lucrative oil-train business, suddenly took a dive on Friday:

  • Union Pacific -4.9%
  • CSX -3.8%
  • Canadian Pacific -8.0%
  • Norfolk Southern -4.7%
  • Kansas City Southern -5.1%
  • Canadian National Railway -4.6%
  • Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, isn’t publicly traded. But if the oil-train business gets hit, so will Buffett’s “steal.”

But this pales compared to the carnage in tank-car builders. On Friday, they plunged:

  • Greenbrier -15% for the day, -28% from its September high.
  • American Railcar Industries -12.9% for the day, -28.3% since August.
  • FreightCar America -7.5% for the day, -21% since September.
  • Trinity Industries -11.3% for the day, -36% since September.

The oil price move is already cascading through American industry. Bondholders are next. The US fracking boom was built with debt, much of it junk rated. And this pile of debt is now at the confluence of the collapsing price of oil, high costs of production, and sharp decline rates of fracked wells that force drillers to continue drilling just to maintain their revenues. It’s a toxic mix.

And there are victims of friendly fire, so to speak.

Particularly OPEC member Venezuela, dogged by the world’s highest inflation and worst budget deficit, is running out of options. On November 18, President Nicolas Maduro ordered $4 billion in loan proceeds from China to be transferred from an off-budget fund to one counted in the international reserves. The sudden appearance of $4 billion in international reserves pumped up bondholder confidence: the next day in intraday trading, Venezuelan bonds jumped the most in six years.

But it didn’t last long. Within a week, its international reserves dropped by $1.3 billion to $22.2 billion, Bloomberg reported. Venezuela had burned through one third of the Chinese money in one week. Venezuela must have much higher oil prices. Unless a miracles happens, or unless China bails it out altogether – at a steep price – the country is headed for default.

Russia, third-largest oil producer in the world, after Saudi Arabia and the US, also got hit, as did Norway, and their currencies have been brutalized [Ruble Freefall: And the Ugliest Currencies Are?]

But this time it’s different.

This time, OPEC is trying to depress oil prices. In prior years, OPEC tried to push prices as high as possible, but without killing the global economy and demand for oil. The balancing act led to high oil prices that consumers struggled to pay but that allowed the US shale revolution to bloom. If oil had remained at $40 or $50 a barrel, fracking wouldn’t have taken off. OPEC was, ironically, one of the enablers of fracking (yield-desperate investors, driven to near insanity by the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy, were the other one). And now fracking is threatening to make OPEC irrelevant.

Saudi Arabia, formerly the dominant oil producer in the world, the country whose mere words could shake up markets and manipulate US policies in the Middle East, and the master of an all-powerful OPEC, is reduced to struggling for simple market share, the hard way.

A lot of people believe that the plunge in the price of oil will be brief, and that it has gone pretty much as far as it can go, given production costs in the US and Canada. But the bloodletting in the US fracking revolution will go on until the money finally dries up. Read…   How Low Can the Price of Oil Plunge?

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Shale Gas Boom: Hydraulic Fracturing and Potential Legal Claims

Joshua W. Mermis
Friday, June 22, 2012

A “gas rush” is revitalizing the domestic petroleum exploration industry, and the legal ramifications could be felt for decades. Through hydraulic fracturing (fracking), petroleum companies access once cost prohibitive shale gas formations by creating fractures in underground rock formations, thereby facilitating oil or gas production by providing pathways for oil or gas to flow to the well. These pathways are commonly referred to as the “fractures.” The legal consequences of fracking could impact more than half of the Lower 48 states.

Background of Hydraulic Fracturing

The basic technique of fracking is not new. In fact, fracking has been used in wells since the late 1940s. The first commercial fracking job took place in 1949 in Velma, Oklahoma, however, sequestered layers of shale gas were inaccessible until 1985, when pioneers such as Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation combined fracking with a newer technology called directional, or horizontal drilling in the Austin Chalk. Directional drilling gave producers access to the shale gas because it allowed them to turn a downward- plodding drill bit as much as 90 degrees and continue drilling within the layer for thousands of additional feet. The positive results were soon transferred to the Barnett Shale in North Texas. To date, more than one million wells have been fractured.
The “hottest” shale plays are as follows:

  • Bakken (Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota)
  • Barnett Shale (Texas)
  • Eagle Ford (Texas)
  • Haynesville (Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas)
  • Marcellus Shale (New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia)
  • Utica (Kentucky, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia)

Confirmed and/or prospective shale plays are also found in Alabama, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming. Shale plays have been confirmed in countries around the world, but the US is the leader in shale gas exploration.

More Money, More Problems

The new application of an old technology made it possible to profitably produce oil and gas from shale formations. Domestic and international companies quickly rushed to capitalize on the large reservoirs of shale gas. But unlike the preceding decades, where new oil and gas exploration had occurred offshore and in deepwater, oil and gas drilling started to occur in areas that were not accustomed to oil and gas activity. Overnight ranchers became millionaires as landmen leased large swaths of property to drill. The media started reporting about enormous domestic supplies of oil and gas that could be profitably produced from shale formations and politicians touted energy independence that could alleviate the country’s demand for foreign reserves. But with the increased attention came increased scrutiny.

Environmental groups have criticized the industry for fracking. The chief concern is that fracking will contamination of drinking water. Movies such as “Gasland” and “Gasland 2” fueled the public’s concerns that the drilling caused polluted water wells and flammable kitchen faucets. Additionally, the industry received criticism for the engineering process that involved high-rate, high-pressure injections of large volumes of water and some chemicals into a well to facilitate the fracking. The EPA and state regulatory bodies have become involved in the discussion and new regulations are likely to follow. In the meantime, some lawsuits have already been filed.

Pending Hydraulic Fracturing Litigation

Plaintiffs have filed approximately forty shale-related lawsuits across the country. These lawsuits include: (1) tort lawsuits; (2) environmental lawsuits; or (3) industry lawsuits. As the shale boom accelerates more suits are anticipated.

1. Tort Lawsuits

Tort lawsuits have been brought by individuals and as class actions. Typically the claimants assert claims for trespass, nuisance, negligence and strict liability. Their complaints involve excessive noise, increased seismic activity, environmental contamination (air, soil and groundwater), diminution in property value, death of livestock/animals, mental anguish and emotional distress. The plaintiffs seek actual damages and, in some instances, injunctive relief. A few parties have even sought the establishment of a medical monitoring fund. The majority of these lawsuits have been filed in Texas, Pennsylvania and Louisiana. The first wave of lawsuits has established new law in the respective jurisdictions as the appellate courts weigh in with published opinions on issues that range from oil and gas lease forfeiture, consequences of forged contracts and contract formation.

2. Environmental Lawsuits

Environmental organizations and some citizen groups are seeking to enforce environmental laws and regulations in an effort to protect the environment and the public from what the litigants perceive to be negative consequences of fracking. In some instances they are even seeking to restrict the use of hydraulic fracking until it is proven to be environmentally safe. A popular target among these litigants is federal and state regulatory bodies, such as the EPA, and federal statutes, such as the Clean Air Act.

3. Industry Lawsuits

The final category of lawsuits includes those brought by the industry against the government. Claimants have sought to challenge federal, state and local government actions that have impeded the industry’s ability to drill.

Fracking Lawsuits 2.0 – Transportation, Construction, Personal Injury and Beyond

The survey of current fracking lawsuits does not take into account the claims that will spin out of the new shale plays. In fact, the engineering and logistical side of the fracking process – not fracking itself – will lead to many more attendant claims.

  • Transportation: The survey of current fracking lawsuits does not take into account the claims that will spin out of the new shale plays. In fact, the engineering and logistical side of the fracking process – not fracking itself – will lead to many more attendant claims.
  • Commercial: Lessor involved in mineral disputes will lead to commercial claims. Many lessors will feel they were shorted, or want a better deal as those now positioned to lease their rights sign a more lucrative mineral-rights lease. Company-to-company disputes will also rise as the price of natural gas fluctuates.
  • Construction: The contractors and design professionals building the midstream facilities, among others, will lead to construction-defect and delay claims. Many states have recently adopted anti-indemnity statutes that will impact claims that arise during construction of midstream facilities, pipelines and other infrastructure-related construction projects.
  • Insurance: Coverage issues will arise as parties file first- and third-party claims for myriad reasons. Issues including comparative indemnity agreements, flow-through indemnity and additional insured endorsements, among others, will need to be analyzed.
  • Personal Injury: Additional workers drilling and working the wells will lead to an increase in personal injury and work-place accident claims. Many of the shale plays are located in what have traditionally been considered “plaintiff friendly” venues. A claim in Pennsylvania will have a different value than one located in Webb County, Texas.
  • Product Liability: The products and chemicals used to drill and extract the oil and gas will lead to product liability claims involving both personal and property damage. The BP Deep Water Horizon well-blowout in the Gulf of Mexico will not be lost on those involved in domestic oil and gas exploration.

How To Reduce Future Fracking Litigation Risk?

Parties can act now to discourage litigation or better position themselves in the event they are named in a suit.

1. Institute electronic records protocol

The proliferation of email and increased retention and archival capabilities means that emails never die. A potential defendant would be well served with a protocol in place that outlines to its employees what are acceptable electronic communications.

2. Strictly comply with fracking fluid disclosures

For those parties who could be exposed to claims regarding the fluids used during drilling, it is important that they minimize the public’s suspicion that they are withholding information about the fluids. The best way to neutralize that misconception is to strictly comply with the state-mandated disclosure rules where applicable. It may even behoove them to voluntarily disclose the fluids’ contents through the
companies’ websites.

3. Be prepared for a fire-drill

A party must be ready to quickly assert its position when a claim is brought. The best way to do so is to track current litigation. Following the cases will provide the company a preview as to what claims it may be subject to, and it also allows them to evaluate defenses. It may also enable the company to insulate itself from suit by avoiding certain actions. Along those same lines, knowing the facts, documents, emails, fact witnesses and expert witnesses will work to a party’s advantage. Some industry leaders have proactively retained experts even though they have not been sued.

4. Know your neighbors

Parties should view their neighbors as allies and potential jurors. To that end, it makes sense to open a dialogue about fracking with the regulators on a local, state and federal level. It would also benefit the parties to engage the community and publicize information about the benefits associated with fracking, e.g., jobs, lower energy prices, cleaner energy, energy independence, etc. Certain midstream players have rolled out a public education campaigns aimed at that very goal.

Conclusion

Articles on shale gas and fracking adorn the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. 60 Minutes runs stories on shale-gas drilling and the faux pundit Stephen Colbert discusses fracking’s impact on his tongue-and-cheek news show. The promise of profits, domestic jobs and energy independence has the country talking about the gas shale plays that dot the landscape. Fracking and all that it encompasses will serve as the backdrop for a variety of legal issues during the foreseeable future.

Joshua W. Mermis is a partner at Johnson, Trent, West & Taylor in Houston, Texas, where he primarily practices in construction and energy litigation. He received his B.A. from the University of Kansas and J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law. This article previously appeared in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of USLAW magazine.

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Eagle Ford banks challenged as deposits skyrocket

By Patrick Danner
San Antonio Express-News

South Texas landowners getting fat checks from oil companies for drilling on their land have been a boon to banks based in the Eagle Ford Shale.

Deposits at most of those banks have surged. The Karnes County National Bank’s deposits rocketed 110 percent to almost $168 million from the end of 2009 through the first quarter of this year.

Eleven other institutions registered jumps in deposits that ranged from 46.8 percent to 82.7 percent. By comparison, domestic deposits at U.S. banks increased 14.7 percent during the same period.

But the influx of deposits has left the Eagle Ford-area banks with something of a challenge: how to deploy that money at a time when loan demand isn’t nearly as strong.

“It’s a problem, but it’s a good problem,” said H.B. “Trip” Ruckman III, president and chairman of The Karnes County National Bank in Karnes City. Its deposits rose by $88 million from the end of 2009 to March 31, while its loans rose by $19 million.

“We have had depositors come in with more than a million dollars at a whack,” he added. “So it is a challenge to keep the money invested.”

The San Antonio Express-News tracked deposits and loans from the end of 2009, when activity started picking up in the Eagle Ford Shale, through the first quarter of this year at 20 banks based in the 14 counties directly affected by the oil and gas activity. Most of the banks tracked are small community banks with assets of less than $220 million.

Eighteen of the 20 banks had deposit growth above the national average of 14.7 percent over the 27 months ending March 31.

Deposits at Security State Bank in Pearsall, for example, climbed by $150 million from 2009 through March 31, mostly as a result of the oil and gas activity, said Mike Wilson, president and CEO.

“Where we used to hunt for money, we don’t have to hunt anymore,” he said.

Curtis Carpenter, who follows banks as managing director of Sheshunoff & Co. Investment Banking in Austin, likened the situation to having “more than you can say grace over.”

Still, the deposit windfall has yet to translate to the same growth in loans.

“You can only loan money where it makes sense,” Carpenter said. “And the fact that all of these deposits are coming in doesn’t necessarily translate into lending opportunities.”

Those lending opportunities will pick up as the Eagle Ford area prospers from all the oil and gas activity, Carpenter said. Bankers agreed, saying they are eager to loan on both multifamily and single-family residential projects. There is some reticence to loan on RV parks and motels because of concerns that they’ve saturated the area.

Bankers offered other reasons why loan growth hasn’t corresponded with deposit growth. Banks have to comply with lending standards — set by banking regulators — that are designed to prevent bank failures. Many existing bank customers are paying off loans with their newfound wealth rather than borrowing money. In addition, many of the oil services companies operating in the Eagle Ford Shale have pre-existing relationships with banks outside the area, so they are not turning to South Texas banks for loans.

Lagging loan growth

All but six of the 20 banks studied reported loan growth over the period. That growth ranged from as little as 6.5 percent at Texas Community Bank in Laredo to 62.2 percent at The Karnes County National Bank.

The increase for those 14 banks was well above the 1.8 percent increase for all U.S. banks combined. Nevertheless, the pace of growth significantly lagged the rise in deposit growth that Eagle Ford-area banks experienced.

“Nobody’s been able to keep up with that,” said Fred Hilscher, executive vice president of the First National Bank of Shiner. Its deposits are up $78 million, or 78.5 percent, versus $7.7 million for loans. The bank borders two counties directly affected by the Eagle Ford Shale. He attributed most of the increase in deposits to the shale.

“We would hope that we could have a larger loan growth, more investments, but … we’re very conservative in what we do,” he added.

Security State Bank’s lending is up about $46 million, or 29 percent since the end of 2009, though its deposits were up $150 million. Wilson, the bank’s president and CEO, has been assessing loans for new oil field buildings and yards in the area to ensure that the bank doesn’t concentrate too heavily on these types of investments.

“If this oil play was to quit or really slow down, there’s going to be an oversupply of that type of thing,” he said. “Just like RV parks and motels. The whole Eagle Ford Shale, every major community in it, is inundated with motels.”

Every week, the bank turns down at least one loan application for motel construction, Wilson said. He’d prefer to provide construction financing for apartments or duplexes because there is such a shortage of permanent housing in the area, but developers aren’t interested.

“Everybody wants the immediate huge payback,” he said.

At Dilley State Bank, with nearly $100 million in assets, deposits increased by $33 million, or 70 percent, to $80.4 million. Loans, meanwhile, increased $3.4 million, or 36.2 percent, to almost $12.8 million.

“Our loans are higher now,” said Jeff W. Avant, the bank’s president and CEO. “But they are still relatively low (versus assets) for most banks our size. It’s not that we’re not (looking to lend) — we’re looking. We look at all the loans and possible loans that come in.”

Like most other banks, Dilley State Bank isn’t willing to ease its lending standards to make a loan. And while oil services companies have come into the area, the bank hasn’t had a bump in lending to them.

“A lot of oil companies, they are banking wherever they come from,” Avant said.

Straining capital ratios

The flood of deposits has led to one serious issue for some of these small banks: having enough capital.

Banking regulators require that banks maintain a minimal level of capital. Deposits are listed on a bank’s balance sheet as liabilities, so as deposits swell, the institutions’ owners might have to put up more of their own money — capital — as a hedge against potential losses to satisfy regulators’ requirements.

It’s an issue banks will have to grapple with as long as landowners continue to deposit big checks from royalties and leases. The solution is either to turn away customers or to raise more capital, Sheshunoff’s Carpenter said. Selling stock or retaining earnings are ways to boost capital.

Security State Bank has chosen the latter. The bank has been retaining about half its profits — rather than paying them out to shareholders — to increase its capital so its capital ratios remain stable.

Meanwhile, The Karnes County National Bank is seeking authority from federal banking regulators to sell $5 million in stock to boost its capital, Ruckman said.

“You’ve got to be proactive in these situations, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Picky about customers

Dilley State Bank hasn’t gone to the extreme of turning away new customers to limit new deposits, but it’s particular about who it wants banking there.

“We’re not trying to grow deposits. We’re not short on cash,” president and CEO Avant said.

One of Avant’s lieutenants refused to share the bank’s CD rates with a reporter out of fear that it they were published it would generate a slew of phone calls from prospective customers wanting to park their money there for just a short time.

“We are looking for long-term-relation-type customers,” Avant said.

All the activity in the Eagle Ford Shale has created exciting times, Security State Bank’s Wilson said. Yet he can’t quit worrying that it won’t last as long as many predict.

“Everything tells us that this is going to be a long-term play, but we’ve all been through some of these before and nobody saw the end coming until the day after it happened,” he said.

pdanner@express-news.net

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New drilling, production in Eagle Ford surges

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Drilling in the Eagle Ford shale has dramatically increased in 2012, as producers have frantically turned away from cheap natural gas to production from regions that yield higher priced oils and other liquids.

The number of new wells drilled in Texas’ Eagle Ford shale more than doubled during the first three months of 2012, compared with the same period a year ago, according to Bentek Energy.

Operators started 856 new wells in the first quarter of 2012, compared with 407 in the same period a year ago, the energy market analysis firm reported.

There was also a record high number of 217 rigs active in the Eagle Ford during this month.

The increase in activity ratcheted up production of oil and other liquids, from 182,000-barrels-a-day in April 2011 to more than 500,000-barrels-a-day this month, according to Bentek’s analysis, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration highlighted on its website.

The Eagle Ford currently produces about 2 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day.

According to Bentek, Eagle Ford crude oil and liquids production was approaching the levels of the booming Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and eastern Montana during March 2012.

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Insight: Natural gas pain is oil’s gain as frack crews head to North Dakota

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By Selam Gebrekidan
NEW YORK | Mon Mar 19, 2012 4:43am EDT

(Reuters) – Collapsing natural gas prices have yielded an unexpected boon for North Dakota‘s shale oil bonanza, easing a shortage of fracking crews that had tempered the biggest U.S. oil boom in a generation.

Energy companies in the Bakken shale patch have boosted activity recently thanks to an exceptionally mild winter and an influx of oil workers trained in the specialized tasks required to prepare wells for production, principally the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing.

State data released this month showed energy companies in January fracked more wells than they drilled for the first time in five months, suggesting oil output could grow even faster than last year’s 35 percent surge as a year-long shortage of workers and equipment finally begins to subside.

As output accelerates, North Dakota should overtake Alaska as the second-largest U.S. producer within months, extending an unexpected oil rush that has already upended the global crude market, clipped U.S. oil imports, and made the state’s economy the fastest-growing in the union.

Six new crews trained in “well completion” — fracking and other work that follows drilling — have moved into North Dakota in the past two months alone, according to the state regulator and industry sources. Back in December, the state was 10 crews short of the number needed to keep up with newly drilled wells.

“Three to four months ago, the operators were begging for fracking crews,” said Monte Besler, who consults companies on fracking jobs in North Dakota’s Bakken shale prospect. Now “companies are calling, asking if we have a well to frack.”

For the last three years, smaller oil companies with thin pockets were forced to wait for two to three months before they could book fracking crews and get oil out of their wells. As more and more wells were drilled, that backlog has grown.

Last year, an average 12 percent of all oil wells were idled in North Dakota. Even so, output in January hit 546,000 barrels per day, doubling in the last two years and pushing the state ahead of California as the country’s third-largest producer.

FEWER WELLS IDLE

Fracking, which unlocks trapped oil by injecting tight shale seams with a slurry of water, sand and chemicals, has drawn fierce protests in some parts of the country, but it has not generated heated opposition in North Dakota.

The number of idle wells waiting to be completed in the state reached a record 908 last June, the result of a new drilling rush and heavy spring floods. Only 733 wells were idle in August as crews caught up, but the figure crept steadily higher until the start of this year.

Now, the industry may be turning a corner in North Dakota, the fastest-growing oil frontier in the world.

“Both rig count and hydraulic fracturing crews are limiting factors. Should they continue to rise together, production will not only increase, it will accelerate,” said Lynn Helms, director of the state Industrial Commission’s Oil and Gas Division.

The tame winter likely played an important role in helping reduce the number of idle wells — those that have been drilled but not yet fracked and prepped for production. That number fell by 11 in January, as oil operations that would normally be slowed by blizzards were able to carry on, experts said.

Residents of the northern Midwest state — accustomed to temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (-40 Celsius) in winter and snow piles as high as 107 inches — this year enjoyed the fourth warmest since 1894, according to the National Weather Service.

The milder conditions also helped prevent the usual exodus of warm-weather workers that occurs when blizzards set in.

“Not everyone wants to work in North Dakota in the winter,” Besler said.

The backlog of unfinished wells has also begun to subside because the pace with which new wells are drilled has leveled off. The state hasn’t added new rigs since November.

The latest state data shows oil companies brought 37 new rigs to North Dakota’s in 2011 but have not added more since November. The rig count held steady at 200 in January 2012, although more than 200 new wells were drilled in that period.

SLUMPING NATGAS PRICE PROVIDES RELIEF

North Dakota has gotten a boost from the fall-off in natural gas drilling due to the collapse in prices to 10-year lows. Energy companies such as Chesapeake and Encana have shut existing natural gas wells and cut back on new ones. Last week, the number of rigs drilling for gas in the United States sank to the lowest level in 10 years as major producers slimmed down their gas business, according to data from Houston-based oil services firm Baker Hughes. [ID:nL2E8EG9OY] The fewer gas wells drilled, the less need for skilled fracking crews in the country’s shale gas outposts.

Fracking in oil patches is similar to the process used in gas wells, except for the inherent power of the pumps employed. Crews inject high-pressure water, sand and chemicals to free hydrocarbons trapped in shale rock. So big service firms such as Halliburton, Baker Hughes and Schlumberger  are reshuffling crews from shale gas fields to oil prospects in the badlands. “We have moved or are moving about eight crews. Some of those crews are moving as we speak,” Mark McCollum, Halliburton’s chief financial officer, said at an industry summit in February.

Halliburton declined to specify where the crews were moving.

Calgary-based Calfrac moved one crew into the Bakken in late 2011, according to an SEC filing. Privately owned FTS International no longer works in the gas-rich Barnett shale but has set up operations in the Utica, an emerging prospect in Ohio and western Pennsylvania, according to a company representative.

The reallocations come with some efficiency losses. Halliburton had to scale back its 24-hour operations and is still trying to solve logistical problems. “You actually take the crew from one basin and they have to go stay in motels, you have to pay them per diems for a while. And then you have to double up your personnel while you’re training new, locally based crew on the equipment once it is moved,” McCollum said.

At the same time, a shortage of key equipment such as pressure pumps is easing as companies start taking delivery of material ordered months or even years ago.

It takes about 15 such pumps to frack a gas well, and many more for oil wells. The total pressure-pumping capacity in the United States at the end of 2012 will be 19 million horsepower, two-and-a-half times more than in 2009, according to Dan Pickering, analyst with Tudor Holt and Pickering in Houston.

FRACKING AROUND THE NATION

Easing personnel constraints suggest recruiters may be meeting with success in nationwide campaigns to attract workers with specialized knowledge of complex pumps and hazmat trucks — and a willingness to brave harsh conditions.

Even with U.S. unemployment at 8.3 percent, such skilled labor remains in short supply despite salaries from $70,000 to $120,000 a year. In North Dakota, unemployment was just 3.2 percent in January, the lowest rate in the nation.

Fracking crews, much like roughnecks on drilling rigs, clock in 12-hour shifts for two straight weeks before getting a day off. They live in camps far from cities and towns. Jobs are transient — a few weeks at a single location. Most workers divide their time between the California desert, Texas ranchlands and the freezing badlands of the Midwest state.

Companies have scrambled to nab talent, with recruiters scouring far and wide. Military bases have gotten frequent visits, and some companies have hired truckers from Europe.

“There’s definitely a push to look all over for people who have good experience since it takes at least six months to train someone how to use a fracking pump,” said David Vaucher, analyst with IHS Cambridge Energy Research.

(Editing by David Gregorio)

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