Thought Piece

[The technology of horizontal drilling and fracking is moving at hyper-speed in the US, thanks to the Internet of Things and the innovations of the American private sector. As expected, the energy industry continues to extract more oil faster and cheaper than OPEC. Yes, Virginia, the slow moving, unwieldy methods used by OPEC are showing. In fact, the cost of production differences are growing larger by the day.  Steve]

Fracking 2.0: Shale Drillers Pioneer New Ways to Profit in Era of Cheap Oil

Texas producer EOG has led the industry in extracting oil from shale faster and cheaper; challenge to OPEC’s control over prices?

By Erin Ailworth, Updated March 30, 2017 1:51 p.m. ET

MIDLAND, Texas—Using a proprietary app called iSteer, Brian Tapp, a geologist for EOG Resources Inc., EOG +0.48% dashed off instructions to a drilling rig 100 miles away. This tool is among the reasons the little-known Texas company says it pumps more oil from the continental U.S. than Exxon Mobil Corp. —or any other producer.

A rig worker received Mr. Tapp’s iPhone alert and tweaked the trajectory of a drill bit thousands of feet underground, to land more squarely in a sweet spot of rock filled with West Texas crude.

U.S. shale drillers transformed the energy industry over the past decade with hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, in the early days using brute force to unleash a torrent of oil and gas that altered the balance of power among oil-producing nations and triggered a global glut.

Now, with oil currently trading near $50 a barrel, these producers are trying to unleash fracking 2.0, the next step in the technological transformation of the sector that is aimed at extracting oil even faster and less expensively to eke out profits at that level.

The promise of this new phase is potentially as significant as the original revolution. If more producers can follow EOG’s lead and profitably ramp up output from shale drilling even at lower prices, the sector could become a lasting force that challenges OPEC’s ability to control market prices.

For a sector in which the previous era’s success was tied to the rapid expansion of output, the shift toward finding more cost-effective ways to get to that oil and gas is full of challenges. When oil prices dropped, critics wondered if the shale industry—rife with heavily indebted companies that had never turned a profit—would collapse.

EOG, with its longtime focus on low-cost production, is the producer many hope to emulate, thanks to the iSteer app and dozens of other homegrown innovations. Dubbed the “Apple of oil” by one analyst, EOG made its name as a pioneer in horizontal drilling and in finding ways to get oil out of shale—often dense layers of rock that hold oil and gas in tiny pores—a feat many once believed impossible.

Competitors such as Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Pioneer Natural Resources Co. also are finding new ways to profit amid low energy prices. Many are experimenting with longer, supersize wells, and fracking them with millions of pounds of sand. Other producers, however, have said the industry needs oil prices of at least $55 to $60 to truly rebound.

The price of oil plunged about 75% from its peak of more than $100 a barrel in mid-2014, and the natural-gas price sank by half in the same period. More than 420,000 oil and gas jobs world-wide have been lost, according to energy consulting firm Graves & Co., and, since the start of 2015, over 200 U.S. energy companies have filed for bankruptcy, according to law firm Haynes & Boone LLP.

EOG, part of Enron Corp. until 1999, now drills horizontal wells in West Texas more than a mile long in 20 days, down from 38 days in 2014. It has done it in as few as 10½ days. It estimates it can get at least a 30% rate of return on wells at $40 a barrel, and that at $50 it can boost oil production at least 15% a year through 2020.

The company said it produced roughly the same amount of oil last year as it did in 2014 with a budget that was 67% smaller.

The iSteer app and other proprietary programs EOG designed are partly why.

EOG uses iSteer to help navigate through rock thousands of feet underground, landing in identified layers with more precision. A device behind the drill bit underground transmits information—including depth and direction but also readings to identify types of rock and the presence of gas—to a geologist at the office. The numbers are crunched, using EOG’s databases on the location’s rock layers and on previous wells, and course corrections are sent to the driller on the rig.

EOG said adjustments can happen in minutes, instead of a process that in the past took at least 30 minutes. The quick modifications keep the drill in a 10-to-15 foot window, which EOG said improves the output and consistency of a well.

The apps help employees work at the “speed of thought,” said Sandeep Bhakhri, EOG’s chief information officer.

The company now uses 65 apps it designed after realizing it needed tools with capabilities it couldn’t find off the shelf. Along the way, it boosted its staff of data scientists, and over the past three years has hired recent computer-science graduates from the University of Texas at Austin.

The apps help EOG answer a range of questions, such as how much pressure to use to crack a particular geologic stratum, to identifying ideal trajectories for drills, to more mundane queries, such as the fastest route to drive from one drilling site to the next.

“I look at [the apps] first thing in the morning, on the exercise bike or during breakfast—it gives me a head start on the day,” said Ezra Yacob, general manager of EOG’s Midland operations.

Tinkering, core to the company’s culture, was evident on a recent visit to the division office in Midland, a city of about 124,000 at the heart of the oil-rich Permian Basin in West Texas.

There, geologists, engineers and technicians could be found constantly on their computers and iPhones using EOG’s apps. The company says all workers are encouraged to fiddle and find novel solutions to problems.

It’s an outgrowth of the company’s habit of ignoring conventional wisdom as it looks for ways to become a better producer

In the early 2000s, EOG was determined to show that vast supplies of natural gas could be unlocked by drilling horizontally through shale. It drilled 15 uneconomic wells in the Dallas-Fort Worth-area field known as the Barnett, while its employees experimented to find better techniques, according to former CEO Mark Papa. It succeeded on the 16th.

As the shale boom took off, scores of producers borrowed heavily to lease land for drilling. EOG moved in the opposite direction, keeping debt low and favoring technological innovation and returns over rapid growth.

When Mr. Papa in 2007 realized gas prices were headed for a drop, he said the company started shifting to oil. At the time, few in the industry thought oil could be economically extracted from shale formations.

A bespectacled EOG geologist named Bill Thomas, then the head of the company’s Fort Worth office, was among those who did.

He became CEO in 2013, and now can often be found in his 35th-floor office at EOG’s headquarters in Houston scrutinizing data about well productivity. Instead of a secretary, the assistant outside his office is one of the company’s top geo-technicians, responsible for analyzing information.

The company’s market cap is now $56 billion. Shares closed at $97.17 Thursday, down 18% from their price at oil’s mid-2014 peak, beating the SPDR S&P Oil and Gas Exploration and Production ETF, a common industry benchmark, which dropped 56% in that time.

EOG regularly solves problems in-house. When, in the early days of drilling for crude in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, the company hit logistical problems getting its oil to market, it built a rail terminal and pipeline to help move it from North Dakota to the trading hub near Cushing, Okla.

These days, it designs its own motors to power drill bits, allowing its engineers to constantly incorporate fixes that improve performance. Oil is pumped into olive-green storage tanks made to EOG’s specifications, cutting down costs and the number of tanks it needs in the field.

It often works with smaller services contractors, instead of giants such as Schlumberger Ltd. and Halliburton Co. , so it can negotiate costs and find expertise tailored to its needs. The partnerships save it money and give it more control over the logistics and supplies needed for any given project, EOG said.

For example, a larger services company might ask EOG to use a particular sand supplier or employ a standard mix of sand, water and chemicals when fracking a well. With a smaller services company, EOG can potentially use sand from a company-owned mine—it bought one in 2008 when the specialized grains started becoming hard to find—and design fracks to meet specific needs.

Heath Work, an EOG drilling manager in Midland, compared the way the company operates to a championship Nascar driver and crew, who make small adjustments that add up over time. “Jimmie Johnson has won seven times and he does it with the same engine as his competitors; he just figures out how to change tires faster,” Mr. Work said.

Competitors are innovating too, as producing oil for less becomes more important than merely finding and pumping new supplies.

Chesapeake Energy recently used a record 50 million pounds of sand to frack a megawell in Louisiana, reaping cost savings via economies of scale. Chesapeake, which some believed was close to bankruptcy in early 2016, said the giant wells are part of its turnaround strategy.

Pioneer Natural Resources said it saves money by mining some of its own sand and has been building its own system to transport the water it needs. Chief Executive Tim Dove said those operations are integral to the company’s goal of producing one million barrels of oil equivalent a day by 2026 while still having cash to cover expenditures.

Critics have questioned EOG’s habit of quickly ramping up production from individual wells, arguing that can cause wells to peter out prematurely. The company used the strategy to supercharge returns in the Eagle Ford, an oil-rich region of South Texas where it was ahead of the pack in leasing more than 500,000 acres for a tiny percentage of what others would pay later.

Mr. Thomas, the CEO, said trial and error has proven its Eagle Ford wells aren’t damaged when allowed to flow aggressively. “You increase your returns because the wells pay out so much quicker,” he said. “If you get a higher return and it doesn’t damage the well, then why not do it?”

EOG expanded in the Permian region by 310,000 acres in October when it acquired Yates Petroleum Corp. for $2.4 billion. Swallowing an entire company was an uncharacteristic move for EOG that will test whether it can export its corporate culture.

A day after the deal closed, EOG was already using its apps and data to steer a Yates well.

“The whole industry has gotten better, but we’ve gotten better a bit faster,” Mr. Thomas said.

Appeared in the Mar. 31, 2017, print edition as ‘Low Oil Price Ushers in Shale 2.0.’