Has US Oil Drilling Finally Reached its Zenith?

Market forces may portend long-anticipated production demise

Row of oil pumps work in a field.

Olga Rolenko/Getty Images


  • U.S. oil drillers have more ways than ever to find and get oil, and plenty of it exists.
  • But a focus on renewables, appeasing investors, and stagnant refining capacity question the need for additional production.
  • Federal policies lack incentives for producers.

A leading U.S. oil executive raised eyebrows last week, proclaiming the days of increasing oil production in this country are a thing of the past.

Maybe this time it will actually happen.

A myriad of other so-called "peak oil" predictions, some going back decades, all ultimately proved inaccurate. But now, Scott Sheffield, chief executive officer of Pioneer Natural Resources, said factors beyond merely finding more oil would constrain U.S. production growth.

"We just don't have the potential to grow U.S. production ever again," Sheffield told CNBC at CERAWeek, billed as the world's annual energy conference. "We don't have the refining capacity."

Predictions the U.S.— and indeed, the world—someday would start running out of oil date to at least the 1950s, about a century after Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well in August 1859 near Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Those predictions, though, generally focused either on the availability of oil in the ground or the boundaries of humankind's ability to extract it—not on what to do with it afterward.

Innovative drilling techniques have repeatedly allowed energy companies to procure more oil than thought possible. But an array of market forces—ranging from promises to investors to the push for renewable energy—may finally conspire to cap the production threshold.

The resulting implications could reinforce the changing dynamics in the U.S. energy sector, which is already focusing somewhat less on finding and drilling for crude, and more on developing alternatives to fossil fuels.

As that happens, the sector's burgeoning commitment to providing more stable shareholder returns may only intensify.

Hubbert's Peak

In 1956, Marion King Hubbert, a geophysicist and geologist working for Shell Oil Co., proposed a theory that all undrilled oil, whether in an individual oil field or total global reserves, faces a bell-shaped production curve.

Using his theory, Hubbert predicted U.S. oil production would peak in 1970, with global production starting to decline in 2006.

For a long time, Hubbert appeared correct, at least for domestic oil. U.S. production initially peaked at 10 million barrels a day in late 1970.

After that, oil from overseas increasingly met demand previously filled by domestic sources. U.S. production gradually fell to 4 million barrels per day by September 2008—a 60% decline in about four decades.

What Hubbert didn't know, however, is that drillers able to scour for oil 5,000 feet below the surface in the 1950s eventually would find ways to drill five times as deep.

New techniques for drilling in shale formations revolutionized U.S. oil production in the 21st century and allowed domestic producers to again replace foreign sources as the biggest suppliers for U.S. consumers. By November 2019, U.S. oil companies produced 13 million barrels a day, still an all-time high.

Not long after, though, the pandemic hit. U.S. producers responded to expectations for plummeting demand by slashing production. In a two-month stretch after the pandemic shut down much of the U.S., domestic production fell by a quarter to 9.7 million barrels a day.

Renewables Blunt Pandemic Recovery

U.S. production since has rebounded, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts it will average 12.4 million barrels a day this year and 12.8 million barrels a day in 2024.

Yet production gains beyond that appear challenging—for reasons unrelated to drilling oil.

For one, renewable energy options such as solar and wind will keep replacing fossil fuels as a means of power generation.

Wind, solar, and battery storage will account for 82% of the new electricity-generation capacity the U.S. adds this year, the EIA says. Renewables will increase to 26% of all power generation by 2024, the agency predicts, up from 22% last year. Conversely, power generated using natural gas—now often a by-product of oil drilling—likely will fall to 37% from 39%.

The push to reduce global carbon emissions has also boosted demand for electric vehicles, which now account for 13% of all new cars sold, according to the International Energy Agency.

EVs, of course, don't need gasoline refined from petroleum. The last large U.S. oil refinery, with a capacity of 200,000 barrels a day, began operating in 1977, though one with a capacity of 45,000 barrels a day opened last year in Galveston, Texas.

With electric vehicles gaining share in the automobile market, little need exists for additional U.S. refinery capacity. That limits new demand potential for crude oil—even though estimates for recoverable oil worldwide have increased to 2.6 trillion barrels.

Breaking the Cycle—And a `Steep' Mountain

What's more, oil and gas drillers, after oil prices plunged early in the pandemic. promised shareholders they wouldn't boost production dramatically when normal life returned.

That pledge aimed to break the boom-and-bust cycle to which oil producers—and their investors—have grown accustomed, basically since Drake first struck oil just before the Civil War.

The pledge has stuck: The EIA's 2024 domestic production forecast, four years after the onset of the pandemic, remains below the all-time high established in late 2019.

Pioneer's Sheffield noted that without more refining capacity, adding drilling equipment doesn't make much sense, particularly given the expense.

"If we all add more rigs, service costs will go up another 20-30%," he said. "It takes away free cash flow."

Moreover, John Hess, CEO of oil and gas driller Hess Co., said not much incentive exists for investing in additional production capacity.

As inflation and gasoline prices soared last year, President Joe Biden asked the energy industry to boost production. However, 2022's Inflation Production Act didn't target fossil fuel production. Instead, it contained numerous tax breaks and federal subsidies encouraging renewable projects.

"The biggest challenge is investment and having policies that encourage that investment," Hess said at CERAWeek, adding that the energy industry has "a structural deficit in investment. We have higher interest rates, we have tighter financial markets."

"All of this makes the mountain steeper."

Article Sources
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  1. CNBC. "U.S. won't reach a new record in oil production 'ever again,' says Pioneer Natural Resources CEO"

  2. American Oil & Gas Historical Society. "First American Oil Well."

  3. TheBusinessProfessor.com. "Hubbert's Peak Theory -- Explained"

  4. U.S. Energy Information Administration. "U.S. Field Production of Crude Oil"

  5. U.S. Energy Information Administration. "U.S. crude oil production will increase to new records in 2023 and 2024."

  6. U.S. Energy Information Administration. "Wind, solar, and batteries increasingly account for more new U.S. power capacity additions."

  7. International Energy Agency. "Electric Vehicles."

  8. U.S. Energy Information Administration. "When was the last refinery built in the United States?"

  9. Reuters. "Inflation Reduction Act and renewable energy development: its advantages and limitations"

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