For many years, my favorite thing from Argentina was a fossil I found near Tucunuco in 1986 while doing geologic field work. We were jouncing across the desert in a mid-1950s Jeep affectionately named La Tortuga, when I glanced down at the passing rocks and happened to notice a nice ammonite (Figure 1) in a small block of limestone — what luck! But my new favorite thing might just be the up-and-coming unconventional oil and gas play that has blossomed 600 miles south of my fossil find: the Vaca Muerta.
Why would I be so fond of a relatively new unconventional play with just fewer than a thousand wells drilled so far? The simple answer? It’s the real deal, in the sense that it competes with the top North American shale plays in both productivity and economics. Production in the play has increased six-fold from 2016 to ~413 Mboe/d today and the average oil EUR for a 2018+ horizontal Vaca Muerta well is about 100 Mbbl/1,000 feet, placing it well on the high end when compared to top U.S. shale plays (Figure 2). Historically, well costs have been one of the play’s biggest headwinds, with average drill and complete costs coming in above $10 million per well, but recently operators have been able to curve costs downwards, placing half-cycle breakevens as low as $36/bbl WTI.
With many super majors (TTE, RDSA, XOM and CVX) participating in the play, either directly or through non-operated assets, and a number of smaller pure-play operators (YPF, PAE, VIST and Wintershall), Enverus anticipates activity levels within the play to keep climbing. YPF, the Argentine NOC, planned to spend $1.5 billion in 2021, PAE is investing ~$150 million in infrastructure through mid-2023 and RDSA intends to spend $1 billion to drill 100 wells through 2022.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the Vaca Muerta story is that the play is well positioned to benefit from data-driven optimization using U.S. analogues; applying the hard lessons learned regarding completions, spacing and parent-child wells from U.S. plays to develop the Vaca Muerta in the most optimized way possible (Figure 3 and 4). Enverus’ industry leading analysis and tools for U.S. unconventional plays, whether it’s multivariate analysis or machine learning algorithms, can amplify available data and guide technical teams of engineers and geologists to an understanding of what works where, and why.
Other unconventional plays in Abu Dhabi, Australia, China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia have gained momentum in the last few years. Using the Vaca Muerta as a playbook, world-class operators can stand to reap the most in terms of capital efficiency, production and economic returns. But it won’t be by luck, like when I found my ammonite, but by properly leveraging Enverus’ data analytics tools and expertise.