The remarkable advancements in shale technology that catapulted the United States to become the leading global oil producer are becoming increasingly rare. As drilling budgets shrink, so does the crucial research and development necessary for the next major breakthroughs in the industry.
Innovations such as hydraulic fracking and directional drilling played a pivotal role in propelling U.S. oil production to its peak in 2018, surpassing all other countries. Shale production alone surged from 2.6 million barrels per day (bpd) a decade ago to over 8 million bpd last year.
However, the pace of output growth has slowed considerably as producers adopt a more conservative approach, allocating funds primarily to maintain current levels of production while prioritizing dividends and stock buybacks to please shareholders.
This lack of investment has resulted in a decline in oil production growth, particularly in the most productive areas where resources are depleting. Concerns arise among industry executives and analysts who fear that there may not be sufficient high-quality reserves to sustain another decade of significant output.
Oilfield service companies, also grappling with debt and shareholder expectations, are redirecting investments toward cleaner alternatives such as electric drilling rigs, eco-friendly fracking equipment, and technologies like carbon sequestration. Consequently, less capital is available for developing the breakthrough techniques that could transform secondary properties into major production sites.
Daniel Yergin, a renowned oil historian and Vice Chairman of S&P Global, highlights the industry’s shifting focus toward new frontiers like geothermal and hydrogen, as well as biofuels. However, he sees no other transformative technologies on the horizon that could substantially alter the global market.
To expand future production, many producers are turning to acquisitions. Chevron Corp, for instance, recently announced its agreement to acquire smaller rival PDC Energy Inc for $7.6 billion in stock and assumed debt, which is expected to increase its oil and gas reserves by 10%. In the process, Chevron significantly reduced its research and development (R&D) spending from $435 million in 2020 to $268 million last year.
The decrease in R&D investment is a common trend. According to a Reuters analysis of financial filings, the world’s largest oilfield services firm, SLB, historically known for its innovative approaches, allocated an average of 3% of its revenues to research and engineering between 2007 and 2017. However, this spending peaked at 3.6% of revenue in 2016 and has since declined to an average of 2.3%. Some of the funds previously dedicated to R&D have been redirected to SLB’s New Energies group, which focuses on developing lower-carbon energy solutions for its oil clients.
This reduced focus on technological advancements has led to a slowdown in production forecasts. Energy technology firm Enervus predicts that the Permian Basin, the largest U.S. shale basin and oilfield, will only expand its output by 400,000 bpd this year. This represents a significant decline from the 1.1 million bpd increase observed in 2018 as new-well productivity diminishes.
With the absence of groundbreaking technologies, companies are resorting to traditional methods to extract more oil from existing properties. Pioneer Natural Resources Co, previously recognized as the fastest-growing shale oil producer, is experimenting with enhanced oil recovery, a technique that has been around for decades. This method involves injecting water or gas into wells to extract additional oil. Scott Sheffield, CEO of Pioneer Natural, sees it as a means of unlocking the untapped potential in wells that have already been exploited. Given that only about 6% of oil is currently recovered from the ground in the Permian, increasing extraction rates could prolong the life of the shale field.