Why Oil Production May Disappoint

E&P companies routinely drill wells but hold off completing them until a later date. Completion includes creating a cement outer wall for the well to avoid leaks, and firing holes in the exterior in preparation for injection of fracking fluid under pressure. Typically wells can be drilled in sequence, as the drilling equipment is moved to the next site, but are completed in batches once a fracking crew is available. Drilled but Uncompleted wells (“DUCs”) are a form of production inventory, in that they represent future output once completed.

The Energy Information Administration collects data on DUCs, and it usually tracks production pretty closely. There’s an underlying assumption that a DUC will eventually be completed, but sometimes a drilled well is a dud, or completing it never becomes economically viable. Some believe that the EIA’s measure of DUCs is substantially overstated. This matters to future production, because fewer wells to be completed means less output, until more wells are drilled.

A characteristic of shale oil wells is that they deplete faster than natural gas. As crude production has increased in the U.S., this means that an ever greater number of new wells need to be drilled in order to compensate for depletion from an ever increasing number of current wells. Because this can’t happen indefinitely, production growth has to slow from it past torrid pace. We explored this in Drilling Down on Shale Depletion Rates.

The time from drilling to completion varies and doesn’t ultimately affect output, according to a study last year from the EIA (see Time between drilling and first production has little effect on oil well production). But it’s also true that the longer a well remains a DUC, the less likely it is to ever be productive.

Currently, we’re completing around 1,200 wells per month. The EIA study referenced above estimated 3-4 months on average between drilling and completion – this was based only on North Dakota, so subsequent inferences rely on that single region to represent the country. But assuming the 3-4 months applies more broadly, that implies 3,600 to 4,800 DUCs in rolling inventory.

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