Analysis: 100 years after boom, shale makes Texas oil hot again

NEW YORK Tue May 3, 2011 12:13am EDT

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A century after a gusher at the Spindletop field in Beaumont, Texas, ushered in the first U.S. oil boom, a quieter oil craze is underway 300 miles west in a chain of counties more famous for cattle than crude.

Over the past two years, some 30 companies have moved in to a shale prospect in South Texas called the Eagle Ford that could add 420,000 barrels per day (bpd) to U.S. crude oil production, nearly matching the output of OPEC member Ecuador.

The first phase of this latest boom has accelerated over the past year. Companies have hastened development of the estimated 3 billion barrels of shale oil across Eagle Ford by bringing in the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques that opened up North Dakota.

Where wildcatters and entrepreneurs pounced on the Spindletop boom at the start of the 20th century, engineers and business analysts are leading the charge to develop reserves under 20,000 square miles of cattle land in Eagle Ford.

Shale natural gas initially drew companies to the area, but as gas prices languished and crude surged, interest in the region's crude potential grew.

To relieve a bottleneck producers say has begun to choke growth, pipeline companies in recent weeks committed more than $1 billion to add 940,000 barrels per day (bpd) of pipeline capacity by the end of 2012, according to Reuters estimates.

Texas, once the center of the oil world, fell on hard times as production declined and big energy companies looked overseas to expand and replenish reserves. After decades of decline, U.S. oil output is slowly rising again, largely due to shale reserves like the Bakken field in North Dakota and now Texas.

In April alone, top pipeline companies such as Enterprise Products, Nustar Energy and Koch pipelines announced five projects to build new crude and condensate lines or expand older ones, bringing the rising supply of high quality light, sweet oil to giant Gulf Coast refiners.

For now, truck drivers are working overtime to ferry oil from the region, which stretches across 22 counties in South Texas. Transport companies are retrofitting rigs, but often can't find lodging for drivers as hotels and motels are booked a year in advance.

"The demand is really straining the trucking industry," said John Esparza, president of the Texas Motor Transportation Association. "A lot of the capacity that existed a few years ago was cut during the recession. Now there is a spike in demand for a very specific type of truck."

Explosive production growth will make the transportation infrastructure problem more glaring. Eagle Ford output has risen from nil two years ago to 71,000 barrels of oil per day, and will leap fivefold by 2015, according to energy consultancy Bentek.

"The growth .... clearly outpaces the capabilities of existing pipeline infrastructure," says Joan Dunlap, spokesperson for Petrohawk Energy, one of the top four producers in Eagle Ford.

ConocoPhillips <COP.N,>, which aims to triple its current output of 20,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day in the next few years, expects pipeline problems to be solved by 2013, the company said last week in its first-quarter earnings report.

FROM TWO DOZEN TO 2,000

The pace of development has picked up quickly since the first successful horizontal well was drilled in Eagle Ford in late 2008, when the Texas Railroad Commission had only 26 permits on record for the area.

The number shot up to more than a thousand in 2010, and the commission issued 562 permits in the first quarter of 2011 alone.

"The Eagle Ford is going from a non-event to being extremely active. We're expecting a four to five times increase in permits and production in four years," said Commissioner David Porter of the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates exploration companies operating in the state.