With more than 60 years in the oil and gas business, T. Boone Pickens has seen just about everything. Along the way, he's made, given away, lost, and remade fortunes, but the one constant has been his insight into the industry that he loves. I spoke with Pickens by phone in November, before OPEC's recent meeting, and we talked about oil prices, production levels, and how he sees the current situation playing out.
Following are a series of questions I posed, and his responses, as well as some insight from Brian Bradshaw, a portfolio manager for Pickens' hedge fund, with more than a decade working alongside Pickens.
OPEC, production levels, and the sustainability of current prices
Jason Hall: Oil prices have fallen 30% since peaking in June. Saudi Arabia doesn't seem to be ready to slow production. What are your thoughts, in the short and long term?
T. Boone Pickens: It's going to be interesting, the OPEC meeting. They're going to have to have more [than current prices] for the oil. How do they get it? Cut supply. Are they ready to do it this month? I'm not so sure. But they are going to get the price of oil back up.
Domestic producers in West Texas aren't getting WTI [West Texas Intermediate crude market price]; they're getting a little less. Bakken [South Dakota's major oilfield] is getting a little less. So I think what [U.S. producers] will start to do is cut capital expenditures. 2015 is practically here already -- the wells they are drilling they won't stop, of course, but they will cut capex, and not drill as many wells next year.
Hall: As I understand it, the majority of the "unconventional" oil wells will see production fall off 50% to 80% after about 12 to 18 months, before stabilizing at a lower output. So what you're saying is U.S. oil production will fall just by producers cutting capex in 2015, and drilling fewer new wells?
Pickens: You've got 1,900 rigs running [in the U.S.] -- 1,500 running on oil, 400 on natural gas. By our math, you can keep production flat with about half the rigs [on oil] that you have running now. If you look back to 2008, there were 1,400 on gas, and only 400 or 500 on oil.
Hall: And after that, the price of natural gas plummeted [from $12 per thousand cubic feet to below $3/Mcf].
Pickens: It's the same thing they've done now on oil -- moved all the rigs over to oil. You did a flip-flop. Guess what? Now you have too much oil. I think it's that simple.
Hall: Back to OPEC: You've got Saudi Arabia, then the rest of OPEC. It seems that there's some sort of divergence. They [the Saudis] have drawn the line in the sand on maintaining production. How long can they do that, if they need $100 oil to balance their budget?
Pickens: If they need more for the oil, they're going to have to cut supply. The real oversupply of light, sweet crude from OPEC comes out of West Africa, not the Middle East [which produces higher-sulfur sour crude]. It's going to take some time to sort out where cuts would have to come from. You could hit the low on oil in the first quarter of next year.
Hall: As this shakes out and OPEC producers work through any changes in production?
Pickens: Yes, and you'll see capex cuts from the companies here [U.S. producers].
Hall: It just takes time for this to play out, then.
Pickens: Yeah, I think that's the way that it unfolds, and I wouldn't be surprised if this time next year, you're back up to $95 or $100 per barrel on oil.
Pickens on major U.S. oil companies missing out on the domestic revolution
Hall: Looking at U.S. producers, I'm sure there are a lot of smaller independent producers that are more exposed to lower oil prices than others. At the same time, major oil companies have been conservative with their capex over the past year, and this looks likely to continue. However, do you think the current market could create the opportunity for some majors to pick up some assets at a discount, as some independent producers begin to struggle?
Pickens: I'll defer to Brian Bradshaw.
Brian Bradshaw: It's something Mr. Pickens has been saying for a long time: The [U.S.] majors have been left behind. ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) has had some success with buying XTO Energy. Chevron (NYSE:CVX) has a lot of acreage in the Permian [West Texas oilfield], but it's not really material relative to the size of these companies. They all left North America and went off to do other things, and this [shale revolution] developed right underneath their noses, and they've largely been left out of it.
Pickens: You could say the majors have done a poor job of "finding themselves." ... They haven't been the leaders in the oil recovery in America.
Hall: It's been the independents who have led that charge.
Pickens: If you look back, most of the oilfields in the U.S. have been discovered by the independents, too.
Investing in oil: There could be some great opportunities ahead
Hall: I know it's different for every region and operator, but when it comes to oil prices, is there a line in the sand where you say, "this is where to invest"?
Bradshaw: I think the way you characterize it is fair. Every play, and every company, is different. We don't think that what's happening here in the short term, is going to become the new long-term reality. We still think you need U.S. supply growth to meet the world's supply and demand balances. We are going through a soft patch on demand; that will correct itself with time.
When you say, "Are there specific prices?" Yes, of course, but each company and play has its own economics, and you have to be sensitive of that. But over time, the core, high-quality companies, the world will still need their production growth. You'll have the opportunity to pick some of them up at great prices.