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A mountain-top take on the "flood of oil supply"

If Montana is a microcosm of the world, one message to glean is that we are not in the midst of a decades-long flood of oil supply in the United States, as many suggest. Instead, the red lights are blinking across the exuberant U.S. oil patch. As you recall, much has been made in recent months about the momentous prospects for U.S. oil and gas, which are said to be leading a global fossil fuel revolution, with meaningful implications for fortune-hunters and geopolitical players alike: North America will be independent of outside oil producers, the U.S. will experience an industrial revolution, and OPEC will drift into laggardly inconsequence. So what to think about the latest news from folks approaching the punch bowl with bad intentions?

Let's start with Montana, and the now-legendary Bakken shale oil formation. Bob Brackett, an analyst with Bernstein Research, studied a dozen years of shale oil drilling data for this mountainous state bordering Canada. What he found was a steep oil production increase through 2006 -- surpassing 100,000 barrels a day -- followed by a fast, 40 percent decline to about 60,000 barrels a day today. The plummet is counterintuitive because the time frame coincides with a capital spending binge by the industry -- tens of billions of dollars poured into the new innovations and technology that have opened up the Bakken and other shale plays. So why has Montana's production dropped? "Resource plays," Brackett writes in a note to clients today, "have limited/finite drilling locations. The best locations get drilled early, the less economic ones later, and once they are drilled, operators move on." In other words, Brackett told me in a followup email, "industry drilled the low hanging fruit first, and now can't find the same quality of opportunity."

But surely this is just Montana, right Bob? You don't mean to suggest that the entire Bakken formation, including North Dakota -- on which so many North American projections centrally rely -- is in trouble, too? Sadly, that is precisely what Brackett means. In fact, he has quantified the Bakken's production trajectory. The key number is six - that is the longevity of a Bakken well before it turns into a "stripper," industry argot for a worn-out nag producing just 10 or 15 barrels a day, from 400 barrels a day at its peak. Right now, just 200 modern Bakken wells are strippers. But in roughly six years, there will be 4,000 of them, Brackett says. "All good things in the oil patch come to an end," Brackett told me. "In the case of North Dakota, that is a long time -- years -- off, but even that too will suffer the same fate" as Montana.

Even now, the fortune hunters among us are suffering. ExxonMobil, the biggest player on the U.S. natural gas patch, made its second quarter numbers yesterday only by selling off $7.5 billion in hard assets such as its Japanese refining unit. In Pennsylvania, a court yesterday rejected the state's right to compel localities to allow oil and gas drilling. What does this tell us? That just because you pick up the scent of oil and gas, a load of other factors affect how much will actually be produced, and for how long. Says Brackett in our email exchange: "There is an emerging view of a wave of oil production (from shale and otherwise) coming. I just want to point out the difficulties in an exuberant view."

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