By Chris Mortenson of Peak Prosperity
Energy is everything.
This is an amazingly important concept. Yet it’s almost universally overlooked.
Sometimes it’s hard to appreciate the magical role energy plays in our daily lives because most of what we experience is a derivative of it. The connection is hidden from direct view. Because of this, most people utterly fail to detect or appreciate the priceless and irreplaceable role of high net-energy fuel sources (such as oil and gas) to our modern lifestyle.
With high net-energy, society enjoys increasing complexity and technological advances. It’s what enables us to pursue massive goals like desalinating billions of gallons of seawater, or going to Mars. But without high net-energy fuel sources, our capabilities quickly regress to those of decades — or even centuries — past.
Which is why understanding where we truly are in the ‘net-energy story’ is so incredibly important. Is the US on the cusp of being “energy independent” from here on out? Is the “shale miracle” ushering in a glorious new ‘boom’ era that will vault America to unprecedented prosperity?
No. The central point of this report is that the US is deluding itself when it comes to energy abundance (generally) and oil (specifically).
Yet that’s not what we hear from the cheerleaders in the industry or in our media. From them, we hear a silver-tongued narrative of coming riches — a narrative that contains some truth, some myth, and a lot of fantasy.
It’s those last two parts — the myths and fantasies — that are going to seriously hurt many investors, as well cause a lot of extremely poor policy and investment decisions.
The bottom line is this: The US shale industry resembles a fraudulent Ponzi scheme much more so than it does any kind of “miracle”.
How do I know that? Because, collectively, US shale companies have lost cash in every year of their existence. The burned through cash when oil was $100 — and again when it was $90, $80, $70, $60, $50, $40, and $30 a barrel. They burned through cash in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.
You don’t have to be a finance guru to appreciate or understand that any industry that persistently burns through cash is a bad deal. Especially one whose prime product – shale wells – principally deplete (-85%) in roughly three years. If you’ve been in business for 9 years drilling wells that mostly run out in 3 years, and you haven’t managed to produce positive cash flow at any point along the way, then it’s time to admit that your business model simply doesn’t work.
As even The Economist magazine recently noted:
The [US shale] industry has also lifted productivity. Drilling is faster, more selective and more accurate, and leakage rates are lower. Wells are being designed to penetrate multiple layers of oil that are stacked on top of each other.
But the fact that the industry makes huge accounting losses has not changed. It has burned up cash whether the oil price was at $100, as in 2014, or at about $50, as it was during the past three months.
The biggest 60 firms in aggregate have used up $9bn per quarter on average for the past five years.
As a result the industry has barely improved its finances despite raising $70bn of equity since 2014. Much of the new money got swallowed up by losses, so total debt remains high, at just over $200bn.
Let’s run that math. Five years is 20 quarters. That times $9 billion/quarter is $180 billion dollars in cumulative operating losses. This begins to give us a sense of the magnitude of losses investors will face when the music finally stops…