Higher natural gas and oil resource estimates should continue through 2013 for several onshore unconventional areas, especially in “pockets of the Permian Basin,” the Niobrara formation, as well as the Eagle Ford and “super-rich” Marcellus and Utica shales, according to Credit Suisse.

During a conference call on Monday to discuss energy forecasts for 2013, Credit Suisse’s Ed Westlake, co-head of global oil and gas, said the returns on the “best liquid-rich shale can be superior to available returns in deepwater projects” because costs continue to increase in the offshore but “are flat or falling” in shale.

“In particular, liquids are generating the best returns in the industry,” he said. “As we go forward in 2013, we expect to see higher resource estimates for the Eagle Ford, the core Niobrara, pockets of the Permian and super-rich Marcellus and Utica, and improving economics for the Bakken. Shale is still getting better…”

The North American oilfield service industry also has opportunities ahead, despite the slowdown in onshore drilling this year.

“We expect North American service to increase, but in the midterm, they are definitely challenged…” Still the United States and Canada “require a hell of a lot of infrastructure…”

As long as North America “is ahead of international shale gas,” the petrochemical industry also will lean to United States and Canada growth because of lower gas/ethane costs, Westlake said. “We see a positive for energy-intensive companies like steel and the U.S. chemical and fertilizer industries.”

North America is expected to hold its unconventional lead for years because “we expect a lot of work ahead on international shale.”

Producers have moved rigs to liquids and oil plays at a frantic pace this year, but “oil may not be as low cost as U.S. natural gas,” which has befuddled capital expenditure budgets this year. It’s also wreaked havoc on oilfield service companies that are tasked with moving equipment and workers from one basin to another.

Most U.S. shale oil plays are intramarginal, he said, “though with breakevens in the $60 to $75/bbl range…The gas revolution has been more impactful than oil…Shale natural gas has transformed the reserve life of North American gas markets. Shale oil is helpful but it does not yet have the same impact on global oil markets.”

Rising production of domestic oil, natural gas liquids and a “slight increase” in biofuel production “don’t look like enough to match falling liquids U.S. consumption,” said the Credit Suisse executive. “However, it is possible for North America as a whole to become more oil independent. This would require success in matching our forecast improvements in well recoveries, efficiency, high oil prices, safe operations and supportive policies at the federal and state levels.”

Rising demand for gas should support higher prices over time. “But it will require substantially low-cost gas to meet demand in the short-term.”

A lot of low-cost gas in the United States remains “available,” he said. In particular, Credit Suisse found below-$2.00/Mcf to produce gas in September in the Granite Wash formation ($1.37) and Marcellus southwest liquids-rich area ($1.74). Below-$3.00/Mcf gas was found in the Cana Woodford Shale ($2.44); and Barnett Shale southern liquids-rich area ($2.73).

At below-$4.00/Mcf prices, producers were able to drill in the Marcellus Shale southwestern area ($3.32); Barnett core ($3.26); Horn River Basin ($3.64); Marcellus northeastern area ($3.53); Haynesville Shale core ($3.94); Pinedale Anticline ($3.75); and Cotton Valley horizontal ($2.63). Above $4.00/Mcf prices in September were found in the Huron Shale ($4.27); Eagle Ford dry gas ($4.25); Woodford Shale Arkoma ($4.72); and Piceance Basin Valley ($4.91).

A lot of experts talk about when North America might achieve “energy independence” because of the unconventionals, but assuming demand declines because of efficiency measures, “we don’t quite get the U.S. to independence by 2022, but if you add in Canada and Mexico, we can get there,” Westlake said. The onshore natural gas plays are “just too low cost and we need a lot of demand to drive prices higher,” which would lead producers back into the gassy basins.

“The best leading indicator we have found for drilling activity is the six-month rate of change, which notes inflection points and measures acceleration/deceleration of activity…We expect to see an inflection in 2013, around the middle of the year.”