“We challenged that dogma, and it was incorrect.”

December 8, 2014

ed-at003_winter_j_20141205170433The Weekend Interview in Saturday’s WSJ – “The Oilman to Thank at Your Next Fill-Up” – provides an absorbing look at the “shale revolution” and touches on several of our favorite themes:  iterative collaboration, how to fail the right way, the incremental, adaptive ways by which success is achieved, and even the role of luck – although we’d describe it a bit more favorably as “serendipity.”

The pioneering company featured prominently in the article is EOG Resources, a former division of Enron discarded in 1999 when that company “decided to jettison tangible assets as they evolved into a trading company.”  By 2007 – one year after the last remaining piece of pre-bankruptcy Enron had been sold off – the former red-headed stepchild had become an industry leader.

(That particular charming detail brings to mind one of our very first posts, Built to Flip or Built to Last, in which we mused about an alternate history in which Hewlett and Packard sat in their garage, sipping lattes, saying to each other, “If we do this right, we can sell this thing off and cash out in 12 months.”)

Flush with success, EOG looked at their innovation and thought: we’re doomed.

“About 2007,” (CEO) Mr. Papa recalls, “I looked around and said, EOG has found so much shale gas, but there are a whole lot of other companies that have found vast amounts of shale gas. All the other companies were ecstatic, and their whole business strategy was, ‘We’re going to find more shale gas.’ I stood back and said this probably doesn’t bode well for natural-gas prices in North America.”

So rather than cling to their initial intuition they tried something impossible:

If gas prices would remain depressed due to a glut, as in fact they would, Mr. Papa’s insight was that perhaps oil, as well as gas, could also be coaxed from shales. Oil molecules are several times as large as gas molecules, and “because the flow paths through these shales are very small, very narrow and restrictive, the general feeling was that you could not produce oil from shales commercially.”

Mr. Papa and his team suspected this was “an apocryphal old wives’ tale,” and no one had “really done the work to prove that conclusively. So we challenged that dogma, and it was incorrect.”

EOG maintains no central research-and-development department. “Our R&D was just applied R&D,” Mr. Papa notes. “We went out there, drilled some wells, and the first eight or nine were unsuccessful. We got improvements, improvements, improvements, until we finally ended up hitting the right recipe for success.” EOG’s decentralized technical operations and “minimum bureaucracy” encouraged engineers to experiment well by well.

Late in 2006, EOG showed that shale oil was feasible in the Bakken. This discovery meant that EOG could switch to oil, with production flipping to 89% liquids (mostly crude) this year from 79% gas in 2007. More to the point, by proving everyone else wrong—again—Mr. Papa changed the domestic industry as other companies chased his achievement. To the extent that U.S. shale oil is transforming world-wide markets, he deserves a lot of the credit.

EOG is a great example of a contrarian definition of entrepreneurship:   see economic value where others see heaps of nothing, combine the self-confidence to defy conventional wisdom with the determination to overcome obstacles, and distinguish yourself more by the ability to achieve the impossible than the originality of your thinking.  They’re also a great example of stupid experimentation:

(A)t the creative frontier of the economy, and at the moment of innovation, insight is inseparable from action.  Only later do analysts look back, observe what happened, and seek to collate this into categories, abstractions and patterns.

More generally, innovation appears to be built upon the kind of trial-and-error learning mediated by markets.  It requires that we allow people to do things that seem stupid to most informed observers — even though we know that most of these would-be innovators will in fact fail.  This is premised on epistemic humility.  We should not unduly restrain experimentation, because we are not sure we are right about very much.

Mr. Papa adds that, in retrospect, they “misjudged the upward slope of technological progress” and undershot by a factor or two or three times what the effect would be on total U.S. production:

Where we sit today with shale is the same place a petroleum engineer sat in the 1940s with a conventional sandstone reservoir,” Mr. Papa says. The best recovery rate then was 10% to 15%, leaving the rest underground, much like shale now—but since has climbed to 40% or 50%. The technology doesn’t yet exist for shale to yield similar shares, but Mr. Papa is confident that over the next 10 years it will emerge, “which basically means we’re going to double or more the amount of oil we’re going to recover. . . . Technology is always going to find a way to unlock each increment of resources.”

Mr. Papa discounts what could be considerable political risks to the energy boom, like some carbon tax or a federal takeover of fracking oversight. On the latter, he thinks the business is well regulated by the states and “there’s been a million frack jobs performed in the U.S. with zero documented cases of damage to the drinking-water table. For my set of statistics, those are pretty good odds.”

As for everything else that might come out of Washington, Mr. Papa says: “It’s my belief that for likely the next 40 or 50 years, we’ll continue to be in a hydrocarbon-powered economy, the main drivers of which are natural gas and crude oil. . . . You have to rely on the logic of the American people and our legislators to say, look at the economic benefits. The benefits are so obvious that an objective person would question whether we want to impose punitive regulations that will diminish what’s accrued.”

Mr. Papa reels off a few examples: A new burst in employment, business investment and GDP. Self-sufficiency in natural gas “for probably the next 50 years” and a two- or threefold competitive price advantage over Europe and Asia, leading to a revival of in-sourced manufacturing. A state and federal tax-revenue bonanza. Diminishing the importance of Persian Gulf and Russian energy dispensations in foreign policy.

Mr. Papa observes that these disruptive gains confounded the zodiac readings of the experts. The gains were driven by smaller, independent, nimbler companies, risking their own capital on potential breakthroughs across mainly state and private lands without federal subsidies.

“If you want to point to a success of private enterprise, and how the capitalist system works for the benefit of the total U.S. economy,” he says, “I can’t come up with a more glowing example.”

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