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Why $100 oil won’t be coming back for a long, long time

L-Shaped Oil Recovery Flattens V-Shaped Market Optimists

(Bloomberg) — Get ready for an L-shaped oil recovery.

A growing consensus is emerging from the likes of BP Plc, the International Energy Agency, shale wildcatters and even the Saudis that a near-term recovery to $100-a-barrel crude isn’t in the cards. Instead, expect a range of $50 to $60 for at least the next few years.

When oil prices plunged sharply in 2008, they rebounded almost as quickly. Several months ago, industry and government touted the same U or V-shaped recovery this time out. On closer examination, a new factor in the marketplace — shale oil — has changed their minds.

“This is the new normal,” Dennis Cassidy, co-leader of the oil and natural gas practice for consulting company AlixPartners, said in an interview. His group sees an L-shaped chart that could extend for three to five years.

Unlike other petroleum formations, the nature of shale — with multiple inexpensive, short-lived wells — means producers can stop and start drilling on a dime. On the one hand, this allows them to quickly cut costs in a downturn; on the other, every time prices tick up, so will their output — renewing downward pressure on prices.

While an offshore well usually costs about $100 million to drill, and takes as long as 10 years and billions more to begin producing from a new field, a shale well requires only several million dollars and a few weeks to coax out oil and gas.

No Coordination

“When the price of oil recovers, most shale formations will be aggressively exploited,” said Leonardo Maugeri, a former Eni SpA vice president and now a researcher at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs. Based on his appreciation of shale’s special qualities, he predicted the current glut in 2012.

No central authority tells shale drillers, who have been described as the new “swing producers,” what to do. Unlike the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the effect they’ll have in holding down prices comes from a set of independent decisions influenced by the need to deliver shareholder returns.

The expectation that U.S. producers will boost drilling as soon as prices improve is why oil executives, including BP Chief Executive Officer Bob Dudley, are saying they don’t see $100 a barrel returning for a “long time.”

Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Oneok Partners LP are among companies basing their budgets on an assumption that oil will stick to about $50 to $55 a barrel this year, with $65 the ceiling for next year.

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