By Brett Aitken
On the Ground With Cactus
I now know what the “Fifth Avenue of Oil” looks like.
A few weeks ago, I spent some time traveling around Texas with my good friend Cactus Schroeder. Cactus has been drilling oil for more than 30 years and is the president of Chisholm Exploration, an oil and gas development and exploration company. He knows everyone in the industry, and they all call him for advice. As we drove around Texas oilfields that week, he took a call from a Houston Chronicle reporter asking Cactus’ outlook on the oil sector, OPEC, and where prices are heading. Others called wanting advice on land or leases.
From the cab of Cactus’ truck, I could see oil rigs dotting the landscape. Huge tanks lay nearby with pipelines gathered around. A vibrant flare burned high above them.
As we passed one site on the left, we would see another off to the right. And more lay on the horizon.
The longer we drove, the faster the drill sites came. We went from seeing a drill site every few miles… to seeing several in as many minutes. “In the past 30 minutes, we have probably driven over 100 million barrels of oil,” Cactus said at one point.
“In the past 30 minutes, we have probably driven over 100 million barrels of oil.”
I didn’t doubt it. This was the Eagle Ford Shale. At 400 miles long and 50 miles wide, it is one of America’s largest shale-rock oilfields. Discovered in 2008, it spreads over roughly 30 Texas counties. And it’s oily. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Eagle Ford has 8.5 billion barrels of oil in reserves.
Eagle Ford (along with the Permian Basin in West Texas) played a major role in the American oil renaissance that has gone on for the past 10 years.
The Permian in West Texas is America’s largest oil play and produces more than 3.5 million barrels per day (bpd). And it’s growing… Reports indicate it will hit more than 4 million bpd by 2023. Our bet is sooner.
The Ghawar of Saudi Arabia is the biggest oil field, producing 5.8 million bpd. With around 85,000 square miles of quality light crude that’s cheap to extract, the Permian is within reach of becoming the world’s largest oil play.
As we approached the town of Kenedy, Cactus mentioned that just a few years ago this tiny place had little more than a post office and gas station. Today, car dealerships, retailers, and fast-food chains flank the streets. An oil fest is going on in Kenedy. Everyone is busy. Big, brand-new cars roam the streets. Shops and restaurants are full.
We stopped for lunch at a roadhouse called Jerry B’s on the outskirts of the city. Right at noon, the parking lot was filling up. We grabbed one of the few tables available.
As we chatted, I told Cactus, “The past two hours was like a shopping spree for oil… And we had just strolled down the equivalent of Fifth Avenue.” The only difference is that in Oil Country, world-class petroleum companies control the streets instead of high-end jewelry and fashion stores.
“That’s Texas,” he replied with a grin.
Cactus had plenty of oil stories to share with me that week. But this particular day, he seemed more excited than usual. Before the trip, he told me how he was hearing more and more about a new field… And he explained it’s not so much new as forgotten.
It’s called the Austin Chalk.
Given the recent activity there by large operators – like EOG Resources and multinational ConocoPhillips – expect to hear a lot more about this play in the coming months and years.
The remarkable thing about the Austin Chalk is it has been hiding in plain sight. The rock formation lies atop the Eagle Ford. Most of the drilling we saw on our drive was likely tapping the Eagle Ford shale below. But the dynamic is shifting, and drillers are about to attack the Austin Chalk in earnest.
Reports suggest the Austin Chalk holds about 4 billion barrels of recoverable crude and about 16 trillion cubic feet of gas. But it will likely be a lot more than that… It almost always is.
That’s why I was in Texas. Cactus identified the opportunity in the Eagle Ford play back in 2010 – before any serious production began. Back then, the region produced around 50,000 bpd. He said it was so large it could become one of the largest oilfields in the history of the United States. And he was right.
He knew because he owned acreage there. The big firms were drilling all around him. Today, the Eagle Ford produces more than 1.4 million barrels per day and climbing.
So when Cactus called to tell me about new activity in this forgotten oil play, it caught my attention.
The Industry Is Suddenly Focused on the Austin Chalk
If you’re thinking to yourself, “Why now?” then you’re asking the right question.
If we’re 10 years into the American oil renaissance… and we knew about the Austin Chalk for decades before that… and we’ve had to drill through it to get to all the oil in the Eagle Ford Shale… then why are we only getting around to the Austin Chalk now?
It’s true. Since the 1990s, the Austin Chalk has remained mostly untouched. Since the shale boom began in the mid-2000s, oil drillers have gone after the easiest oil to tap. The Permian Basin and Eagle Ford hold some of the best oil in the country. And those rocks were the most likely to give up their oil with new technologies, like directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).
Given the history and complexities of the Austin Chalk, there were easier and cheaper places to extract good-quality oil. But now that’s changed. And it’s because of the success at Eagle Ford which lays right beneath it.
You see, transportation matters, too. Producers must be able to get their oil to market cheaply. Eagle Ford and Permian lie in historic regions and close by all the critical refining areas.
With production up more than 75% in the Permian over the past two years, some producers are having issues getting their oil to market. At about 3.5 million barrels per day and climbing, pipeline capacity is full. But we saw companies laying plenty of pipelines during our travels through the Midlands. It may be another 12 to 18 months, but the much-needed infrastructure is on the way.
As with the Eagle Ford, the Austin Chalk is near the Gulf Coast. Corpus Christi is a jungle of pipelines, storage tanks, and refineries. Plus, it has a huge port to handle exports. There is no place where it’s easier for producers to get their oil to market.
Companies with exposure to some of the best oil fields in America – like the Permian, the Eagle Ford, and the Austin Chalk – will profit.
The Austin Chalk layer sits atop the Eagle Ford and runs from Mexico up along the Gulf Coast into Louisiana.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently reported that as of January 2016, the Austin Chalk has about 4 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil. Time will tell. But it’s a safe bet that the actual number is much higher.
Government agencies have a history of underestimating the amount of reserves that lay beneath our feet in the U.S. For example, they originally said the Eagle Ford had 4 billion barrels. After a decade of drilling, the U.S. Geological Survey reported this year the area has 8.5 billion barrels. By some estimates, we have already extracted close to 3 billion barrels over the past decade. Yet remarkably, the amount of reserves has increased.
So-called experts always underestimate human ingenuity. Technology constantly improves. And we can find new ways to extract more oil from more difficult reservoirs every day. Our bet is these experts have underestimated the potential at Austin Chalk as well. And by a wide margin.
The biggest challenge facing the Austin Chalk is that it’s a more complex and less permeable rock formation than the Eagle Ford. Research firm Wood Mackenzie estimates the Austin Chalk is roughly five times less permeable than Eagle Ford, which drives up drilling costs.
They estimate that the average well cost in the Austin Chalk acreage in Louisiana comes in at around $10 million. That’s more than double the cost of some Eagle Ford locations.
As we headed away from Kenedy, Cactus got his friend and former business partner, Dale, on the phone. Dale is in touch with operators on the ground in the Austin Chalk. We wanted to hear what he had to say about the Chalk play and how the best oil drilling companies are making it work.
His take: Some of the best operators are already there, some with bigger wells than most everyone else. These wells are going down roughly 12,000 feet, and then more than 9,000 feet horizontal. The normal horizontal well is about half that. That improves the economics right there.
The other thing we noticed in our travels was the number of well pads per site. Today, drillers can optimize their drilling by placing several well pads that enable them to slide the rig across, up, or down the play to maximize returns.
The average 30-day production rate for one of America’s leading producer in the Austin Chalk is around 3,275 BOE per day so far. And it is on target to complete more than 20 wells this year. Because of its exposure to Eagle Ford, its infrastructure is already in place to drill into the Austin Chalk. It’s right in its sweet spot.
Plus it has access to Gulf Coast pricing. And exports are starting to soar…
Since 2008, U.S. oil output has more than doubled – to around 11 million barrels per day – reversing four decades of production declines in just 10 years. We have gone from customer to competitor. Earlier this year, we passed Saudi Arabia’s daily oil production.
Saudi Arabia was the marginal producer for 50 years. It was the largest producer with the largest amount of spare capacity. It will continue as a top producer on a global scale.
But today, the U.S. is the marginal producer.
U.S. oil (as measured by the West Texas Intermediate crude benchmark) trades at a discount to global oil (measured by the price of Brent crude). That means our oil and gas production costs will set the price of oil globally into the future.
Going forward, regardless of whether OPEC tries to keep prices up or down, U.S. production growth will continue. And companies with exposure to some of the best oil fields in America – like the Permian, the Eagle Ford, and the Austin Chalk – will profit.
Over the past 25 years, Brett Aitken has worked with blue-chip companies and high-level business executives across Australia, Europe, and the U.S.
An expert at analyzing global businesses, Brett is currently the senior analyst for Stansberry’s Investment Advisory, and a managing director of Stansberry Research, where he oversees the editorial team and various publications.