02/08/2015 04:51 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2015

Tuscaloosa Marine Shale Fracking Slows as Operators Watch Oil Prices

When crude oil prices sank this winter, companies scaled back their fracking plans in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale deposit, running from central and southeast Louisiana into Mississippi. Exploration and drilling is mostly on hiatus there until crude rebounds, industry members said last week. Oil dropped below $45 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange in late January from over $100 last summer. In early February, prices were edging up again.

TMS activity has slowed to a snail's pace for the most part, Baton Rouge-based landman and minerals consultant Dan Collins said last week. Capital spending by Goodrich Petroleum, Encana Corporation, Halcon Resources and others this year will be smaller than initially planned, he said.

Horizontal drillers access oil and gas reserves in "tight" formations of nearly impervious rock, Collins said. "They get the majority of their production out in the first 18 to 24 months, and after that output tapers off dramatically," he said. In comparison, conventional wells tapping freely-flowing supplies have longer lives.

If oil prices stay weak for awhile and national drilling activity shrinks, U.S. oil inventories could decline sharply within 18 to 36 months, Collins said. Oil industry members think prices might shoot up in response then. And crude would bounce if Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, led by Saudi Arabia, decides to limit production, he said.

Alberta, Canada-based Encana is scaling back its TMS activity for now and concentrating on deposits elsewhere. "Given the price environment, this year we're spending about 80 percent of our capital on key areas that provide us the best returns -- the Montney and Duvernay in Canada and the Eagle Ford and Permian in Texas," Encana spokesman Doug Hock in Denver said last week. "In the TMS, we expect to spend between $50 million and $70 million and to drill two to five net wells this year. Last year in the TMS, we drilled about twelve net wells and spent over $100 million in capital."

As for oil's price impact on its jobs, "Encana had about a 20-percent, corporate-wide staff reduction at the end of 2013, putting us in a better position than some others in the industry," Hock said. "No layoffs are currently contemplated."

On Jan. 30, Houston-based Goodrich Petroleum said capital expenditures will likely be $90 million to $110 million this year for exploration and drilling, including about $10 million for leaseholds and infrastructure. That's down from its early-December spending projection of $150 million to $200 million. Goodrich is considering a sale of its Eagle Ford assets in Texas. But it remains fairly upbeat on the TMS, saying in late January that its well costs there have declined and its entire, oil-directed allocation is to that deposit.

"We will spend $73 million to $93 million in the TMS this year to fund a one-to-two-rig drilling program, with varied working interest wells," Daniel Edwards Jenkins, investor relations director at Goodrich, said last week. That's versus projected TMS spending of $137.5 million to $180 million in early December. "We're spending almost all dollars to drill about eleven gross TMS wells," he said.

What about plans by New Orleans-based Helis Oil & Gas Co. to drill northeast of Mandeville, La.? "The company's first proposed TMS fracturing project, off of Highway 1088 in St. Tammany, hasn't been fully permitted yet," Helis spokesman Greg Beuerman said last week. "No exploration or production activity is associated with it yet. The price of oil, however, has no bearing whatsoever on plans to move ahead with the well's permitting and completion, in alignment with legal and regulatory requirements."

Beuerman said current oil prices don't affect what Helis believes will be a productive endeavor that helps reduce dependence on unstable foreign sources, while keeping gasoline prices low.

For the industry as a whole, however, fracking slows with crude at $75 to $80 a barrel, and it continues to decline as oil dips under $75, Robert Gilmer, director of University of Houston's Institute for Regional Forecasting, said at a Nov. 20 institute symposium. He cited a survey of 100 North American oil producers last fall by Houston-based energy investment bankers Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. "Only four percent of the survey's respondents indicated their forward-planning price for oil was under $75 a barrel," Gilmer said.

Some oil-directed fracking would occur at $65 to $70 per barrel, however, keeping the industry busy enough, Gilmer said last week. "Everyone expects to see $80 oil again," he added.

To resume its TMS activity, Texas-based Comstock Resources wants to see oil at $80 or more. "TMS is on hold for us now," Gary Guyton, the company's investor relations director, said last week. Comstock won't drill any further there until prices rise. "I believe we'd need to see $80 to $85 a barrel or higher before we would consider drilling," he said.

To protect themselves in advance against price changes, fracking operators can use oil and natural gas futures and options to hedge bets, by taking positions that are opposite their physical stances. "Some of the companies have hedged their oil sales, and some may still be receiving higher-than-spot-market prices, which might help them through the oil price downturn," Collins said.

In December, Goodrich said 3,500 barrels of oil a day, or 52 percent to 55 percent of its expected output in 2015, were hedged at $96.11 per barrel. But Comstock's Guyton said his company hasn't hedged its TMS production. Several other operators last week declined to say what they've done.

In northwest Louisiana, fracking depends on natural gas prices, which collapsed in late 2011 and remain weak, Gilmer said. Haynesville shale drilling near Shreveport is mainly for natural gas, while TMS drilling along the southeast Louisiana-Mississippi border is mostly for oil. "The current downturn in oil-directed drilling should help natural gas prices," Gilmer said. "That's because much of the recent natural gas output has been as a byproduct associated with oil."

"Plans to export natural gas to foreign customers through major projects at Lake Charles, Louisiana, Sabine Pass and Freeport, Texas should also help get natural gas prices back up," Gilmer said. Billions of dollars of investments in liquefied natural gas facilities and shipping terminals along the southwest Louisiana-Texas border have been announced in recent years.

Oil-oriented TMS drilling is in its infancy while the Haynesville play has languished since gas prices dropped several years ago, Greg Albrecht, chief economist with Louisiana's Legislative Fiscal Office, said last week. But Louisiana produces over 60 million barrels of oil annually, of which nine percent is offshore, and every $1 a barrel sag in crude prices over a fiscal year cuts state revenues by $12 million, he said. end

This post was originally featured in The Louisiana Weekly in the Feb. 9, 2015 edition.