Abstract

The story of the US shale revolution is well known. Hydraulic fracturing techniques were executed by Mitchell Energy in vertical Barnett Play gas wells in the early 2000's, vertical wells matured into horizontal multi-stage frac wells, and one of the largest land leasing campaigns in history exploded as operators chased high gas prices.

As the natural gas market became saturated, the industry started to strip the natural gas liquids (NGLs) out of the gas stream to take advantage of the ever-rising oil pricing. When gas prices tumbled in 2011, and oil prices climbed north of $100/bbl, the industry looked to the liquid rich/oil plays, such as the Williston Basin, the DJ Basin, and the Permian Basin.

The turning point came in November 2014 when oil prices fell rapidly. As prices bottomed out at $22/bbl in February 2015, the industry saw a large exodus of operators and capital from the gas rich plays around the US to the liquid rich Permian. The Permian proved to be the haven for oil and gas development with its multiple pay zone targets, high EURs, low break-even costs, friendly regulatory environment, and access to markets. The rush for land, once again ensued, with the hope of an oil price rebound and promise of high returns to capital investors.

The rapid ramp up in activity from 2015–2018 did not come without challenges as it put strain on the availability of services and people, access to pipelines and markets, and access to frac sand/water. This drove up costs and resulted in mixed results for many companies. In addition, operators soon saw that with higher-than-expected gas and water production, expenses to manage these by-products sky-rocketed. Water handling and disposal became a huge portion of operating expenses and with gas export facilities at full capacity, companies started to flare gas in large volumes. Associated gas became a waste product, causing operators needed remove the gas and associated liquids from the revenue stream, and in some cases pay a high cost for flaring permits, rather than shutting in wells.

By 2019, a shift in the investment community was well underway. The days of growth-focused investment were coming to an end, and investors wanted to see returns on their investments. As prices still hovered around the $55/bbl range, investors were getting anxious to recover their capital invested in the industry, and throughout 2019 operators all talked about the ability to generate free cash flow. This paper analyses the free cash flow for three key unconventional basins across the US and discusses the associated economic impacts in each basin.

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