High-sulfur US crude varieties are now so uneconomical that they command prices near zero or even negative in refining. You know your sector is in trouble when you have to pay customers to take your worst product away. Large US banks are strengthening their loss reserve allowances as loans to oil producers reach default thresholds. Thank the Federal Reserve for increasing required capital cushions. Some financial players tracking the oil sector have begun clamoring for a federal bailout. The energy sector's financiers did not get the memo that bailouts are political non-starters. Miscellaneous regulatory changes in Washington may make it easier for surviving drillers to market their product. Financial backstops for the entire sector are very unlikely now that regulators have learned lessons from the 2008 systemic crisis.
Oil drillers who survive the slump will contend with more favorable economics, and not just from an eventual rise in market prices. The Manhattan Institute's "Shale 2.0" study argues that Big Data will bring a revolution to oil drilling that dramatically reduces its cost structure. The think tank's longer study is worth reading for technical insights. Lower production costs across North America will make the continent's production less responsive to OPEC production changes.
Another factor working in the oil sector's long-term favor is the need for a "Great Crew Change" replacing the sector's retiring experts. OGFJ's coverage of the Great Crew Change reveals that hiring to replace experts is less of a priority when oil prices are low and producers shut rigs down. Hiring younger Big Data experts will bring the Shale 2.0 cost benefits to financially healthy producers first, giving them market power as they restart exploration. Only the financially healthiest producers can afford to both replace retired talent with new STEM hires and replace depleted fields with new exploration.
One other complicating factor facing oil shale producers is the finalization of the UN's Paris COP21 climate change protocols. The new regime will use both regulatory and financial incentives to discourage hydrocarbon production and favor renewable energy generation. The regime includes financial support for developing nations whose energy exports will suffer as their oil production is rendered uneconomic. US oil drillers who can afford to comply with COP21's controls may have a window of opportunity if some OPEC producers are deterred from production.
The oil sector's pain will pass at some point. US producers who are currently sour on crude (pun intended) will relish the economic advantages they can reap by being first to implement Shale 2.0 tech, first to hire younger engineers in the Great Crew Change, and firs to adapt to COP21 controls. The largest and least leveraged US oil producers should be first in line when the race begins again.
Full disclosure: Long position in USO.