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America is going through an oil boom — and this time it's different

Drilling rigs sit unused on a lot in Odessa, Texas, in the Permian Basin, in March 2022. U.S. oil companies are thriving as they look to avoid the boom-and-bust cycles of the past. That has big implications, including for consumers and global producers.
Joe Raedle
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Getty Images
Drilling rigs sit unused on a lot in Odessa, Texas, in the Permian Basin, in March 2022. U.S. oil companies are thriving as they look to avoid the boom-and-bust cycles of the past. That has big implications, including for consumers and global producers.

MIDLAND, Texas — America's oil industry is booming — in a surprising way.

It doesn't look much like the booms of the past, when companies would scramble to pump as much oil as possible and the region would attract so many workers it became impossible to find housing and free hotel rooms.

Instead, a sector infamous for its booms and busts is finally learning how to embrace the one thing they've never been known for: moderation.

This shift is doing a lot of good in the Permian, America's most prolific oil basin. Oil companies are raking in profits, and the steadier work has also been good for workers across the region.

But the economic, geopolitical and climate implications are more complicated.

Here are five things to know about this shift, and what it means.

Oil prices are volatile — but still very profitable

Last year, Russia's invasion of Ukraine sent crude prices soaring well past $100 a barrel, and that meant producers were making money hand over fist.

Prices have since fallen, but they remain at or above their pre-pandemic levels. Significantly, they've consistently been high enough for most producers to drill new wells at a profit.

The most recent survey from the Dallas Federal Reserve found that the average Permian producer can break even on a new well when WTI (a key reference price for oil prices) is trading at $61 a barrel. And currently, prices are well above that level.

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The result: Big profits for companies and higher employment and wages for workers in the Permian Basin.

... but something unexpected is happening

Before the pandemic, the U.S. oil industry followed a predictable pattern.

"When there was an increase in prices, the U.S. shale players would rush in and increase production to try to capture that price increase," says Angie Gildea, the head of U.S. energy for global accounting firm KPMG.

In previous boom times, more than 500 drilling rigs were operating simultaneously across the Permian as oil companies chased high oil prices.

All those wells contributed to a huge growth in oil supply, which then led to a huge oversupply, which then inevitably led to ... huge price crashes and a resulting collapse in drilling activity. Boom, bust. Boom, bust.

But last year, despite prices topping $100 a barrel, rig counts stayed in the mid-300s. They held there as prices dropped. And that's where they remain today, more or less leveling off.

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There are multiple factors keeping companies from drilling even more — supply chain shortages, trouble hiring workers, or for some companies, a lack of good sites to drill.

But a huge factor in this shift towards moderation is pressure from investors who want oil companies to share their profits with them, rather than funneling the earnings back into the ground to make more oil.

The number of drilling rigs active at one time is a closely watched figure, indicating how active the oil industry is.
Camila Domonoske / NPR
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NPR
The number of drilling rigs active at one time is a closely watched figure, indicating how active the oil industry is.

"Investors are actually demanding ... more discipline from these shale producers," says Gildea. "They want return of dividends and cash back to shareholders versus prioritizing just growing production."

The result: Production in the Permian is still growing, but it's growing more gradually. And it's been growing steadily even as prices swing around.

That's good for producers, including OPEC+

More restrained investment means oil companies are less likely to suffer the busts that used to roil the industry.

And while oil prices are high, companies are paying down debt, merging with rivals to strengthen their positions and churning out cash. That has positive economic impacts for individual companies, for oil-producing regions like the Permian and for a major segment of the American economy.

More discipline from American oil companies is also good for the global cartel known as OPEC+.

The shale revolution has reshaped global oil politics, turning the U.S. into the world's top's producer and an OPEC+ rival instead of just a customer.

That means that any time OPEC+ considers cutting production, it has to weigh whether U.S. producers will jump in to pump more crude, seizing more market share from the cartel.

That's much less of a concern today. With shale producers keeping their growth in check, OPEC and its allies can cut output, pushing up prices, without risking a shale bonanza.

In fact, Saudi Arabia announced yet another voluntary cut in production over the weekend, while some other members of OPEC+ extended their own voluntary cuts.

"They believe, over the medium term, that they are in a very strong position in the market, that shale companies do have to respond to shareholders who do ask for capital discipline," says Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, who was in Vienna for the OPEC+ meeting.

The impact on markets will play out for years, Croft predicts.

And it's not great for consumers

As usual, good news for oil companies is bad news for oil consumers – even if it's not currently visible from prices at the pump.

Gasoline prices in the U.S. currently average a little over $3.50 nationally, more than a dollar lower than last year. For the next few weeks and months, gasoline analysts aren't predicting anything close to last year's sky-high prices.

But in the medium- and long-term, less investment in oil production means less supply, which drives prices up.

A customer pumps gas at an Exxon gas station in Houston, Texas, on July 29, 2022. U.S. oil companies are becoming a lot more restrained about production, and that could keep gas prices high over the longer term.
Brandon Bell / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A customer pumps gas at an Exxon gas station in Houston, on July 29, 2022. U.S. oil companies are becoming a lot more restrained about production, and that could keep gas prices high over the longer term.

To be clear, U.S. oil production is still increasing, but it's not increasing as quickly as it once would have.

The big wild card is whether a global recession materializes. But if it doesn't, analysts think supply will continue to lag demand, given the restrained production from U.S. and OPEC+ producers.

A forecast released this week by Enverus, an energy data analytics company, predicts Brent, the global crude benchmark, will top $100 a barrel again later this year.

The impact on climate is less clear

Climate scientists say the world needs to rapidly reduce its use of oil and natural gas and implement other emissions cuts to limit the devastating impacts caused by climate change.And that's doable, they say, thanks to cheaper renewable energy and other alternatives.

So is a slower-growing Permian in line with a transition away from oil?

Gildea argues that this restraint from producers could free up money and bandwidth for companies to focus on cleaner energy and emissions reduction, positioning themselves to continue to profit as the world shifts away from oil.

But so far, oil and gas companies are sending the bulk of their cash back to investors in the form of dividends and share buybacks, rather than dedicating it to new, greener ventures.

And the sheer profitability of oil means that companies have very little incentive to invest in anything else — in fact, they can be punished by the market if they try.

Oil companies are also unconvinced that the world actually will transition away from oil, at least at anything approaching the speed necessary to stop climate change.

Blocks of ice drift on the water off the coast of Collins glacier on King George Island, Antarctica on Feb. 1, 2018. Climate scientists say the world needs to quickly start addressing the devastating impacts caused by climate change.
Mathilde Bellenger / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Blocks of ice drift on the water off the coast of Collins glacier on King George Island, Antarctica, on Feb. 1, 2018. Climate scientists say the world needs to quickly start addressing the devastating impacts caused by climate change.

The oil industry is talking (and advertising) about climate change now, but companies are openly skeptical about the actual speed of a transition away from oil. That's true for big companies — and small ones.

The U.S. oil patch may have discovered restraint. But there's no indication that it's on the road to reinvention.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.