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(The Fuse) The U.S. oil industry seemed to be defying gravity in 2015, keeping oil production elevated even as oil prices crashed to lows not seen in more than a decade. But now, over 1.5 years into the price collapse, production declines in shale oil are finally starting to appear as low oil prices have slashed company investments in new supply, and production begins to decline from existing wells.

The latest data from the EIA shows that U.S. output is steadily declining, although perhaps at a slower rate than shale’s competitors might prefer. In December, the latest month for which final data is available, total U.S. production declined to 9.26 million barrels per day (mbd), a loss of 43,000 barrels per day from the month before and down from a peak of 9.69 mbd in April 2015. But December’s small decline hides the decrease in shale production, as losses were offset by output increases from the Gulf of Mexico.

Shale drillers at their limits

Most shale companies began trimming their spending levels last year to adjust to a new period of lower oil prices. But many managed to either maintain current production levels or even boost production in the face of falling prices by improving drilling operations. Still, the ability to stave off decline in an era of sub-$40 oil is becoming increasingly hard to achieve.

Continental Resources , a prolific shale producer in North Dakota and Oklahoma, announced in its latest quarterly report that it would stop drilling in the Bakken this year. Continental said it would maintain its four existing rigs in the Bakken, but would not deploy “stimulation crews” to frack any wells. With most well completions in the Bakken deferred, new sources of production will not come online. As a result, Continental Resource’s production in the Bakken will fall. The shale company’s output was already down about 1.5 percent in the fourth quarter compared to the third, but production will likely slip to between 180,000 and 190,000 of oil equivalent per day (boe/d) by the end of the year, or a decline of roughly 15 to 20 percent […]