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US oil, gas rig count falls 4 to 837, despite more Permian gains

Highlights

Permian shows most increase in rigs, permits

Permit growth unusually low this week

Economics 'challenging' for US shale: Evercore

Houston — The US oil and gas rig count fell by four to 837 for the week ending January 29, data provider Enverus said Thursday, with nationwide losses outpacing more growth in the Permian Basin.

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The Permian was the week's big winner for rigs, up five to 415. The West Texas/New Mexico play began 2020 at 396 rigs, but has gained rigs in four straight weeks and increased its count by 19 this month.

"It's a positive early sign, but it's too early to tell much about a turnaround in drilling," said Bob Williams, director of content at Enverus. "It's logical in this low-price environment that the first region to add rigs in the new year would be the Permian, which has the lowest breakeven costs in the nation.

"Given the day rates falling into negative territory in December, it's possible that some operators are opportunistically taking advantage of the lower day rate costs by frontloading their drilling spend for the first of the year."

The Permian is the largest source of US oil and the nation's second-largest gas reservoir, with current production around 4.7 million b/d and 16.6 Bcf/d, respectively.

Nationwide, oil- and natural gas-directed rig counts were each down by two, to 677 for oil and 157 for gas.

The rig count in seven of the large named shale basins moved up or down by one or two rigs apiece on week, except for the Haynesville Shale of East Texas and Northwest Louisiana and the Williston Basin of North Dakota and Montana, which each lost three rigs.

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CONCERNS OVER US PRODUCTION GROWTH IN 2020

Although the year is off to a good start in the Permian, some Wall Street analysts have concerns over US production growth this year.

Indications point to an activity slowdown in domestic shale basins, yet some prominent forecasters and research agencies still see the nation's production increasing well over 1 million b/d this year.

Drilling permits, which are a good leading indicator to near-term drilling activity, tells a concerning story, according to Evercore ISI analyst James West.

"We should be looking at December permits around the 5,000 level, but in December 2019 they were 2,300," West said during a Tuesday webinar sponsored by his investment bank. "That suggests a pretty weak start to the business for this year."

Last month's permit total represented the lowest December totals in Evercore's data going back to 2008, he said.

According to Enverus figures, in the past week total US permits grew by only 28 for a total 535. That increase was small compared to typical weekly movements of at least 100 permits up or down, and often much more.

The biggest week-on-week change came in the Permian, up 34 permits to a total 207. Both the Denver-Julesburg Basin in Colorado and the Haynesville Shale of East Texas and Northwest Louisiana each increased permits by 13 on the week, for a total 15 and 23 respectively.

The other large named basins were up or down by seven or less this week.

BIG CHANGE IN VIEWS OF DRILLING ECONOMICS

Evercore, which puts out a yearly Global E&P Spending Outlook Survey, asks its 250-plus respondents to characterize drilling prospects for their regions. In the December 2018 survey, 3% of participants said they expected economics in their drilling regions to be poor but that number "skyrocketed" to 30% in December 2019, West said. "Clearly," he added, "they understand that economics are challenging in the US market."

Evercore also projects a roughly 7% drop in US spending for 2020 by E&P operators, with West cautioning a "downside risk" to that figure.

Wells Fargo upstream analyst Nitin Kumar projects domestic capex will be down by 2%, but still projects his coverage universe will show around 8% year-over-year oil production growth of about 210,000 b/d and total production growth of about 7%, or about 500,000 boe/d.

"We believe most operators are likely [to signal] a moderation of growth and a focus on free cash flow generation" in their Q4 conference calls, which just started this week, Kumar said. Those Q4 calls generally provide information on activity programs for the coming year.

In the meantime, oil prices have been wobbly this year, dropping from over $60/b to current levels in the low $50s/b.

WTI fell in the past week to an average of $53.91/b, down $4.10, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics. WTI Midland dropped $4.14 to $54.63/b, and the Bakken Composite price fell $3.56 to $48.43/b.

Decreases were also seen on the gas side. Henry Hub prices averaged $1.94/MMBtu, down 4 cents, while the Dominion South average was $1.55/MMBtu, down 11 cents.