Houston — The US oil and gas rig count rose for the second straight week, according to energy researchers Enverus' drilling statistics released Thursday, on what analysts say may be a final push to spend the last bit of 2019 drilling budgets at WTI prices that have cracked the $60/b mark.
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The domestic rig count totaled 860, up five for the week ended December 18 following an unusually large 15-rig jump the previous week, Enverus said.
As a result, the US gained 20 rigs in the past two weeks, a reversal of the past year's general southward direction. Since mid-November 2018, when the recent US rig count peak totaled 1,237, industry has lost 30% or nearly 400 rigs.
Moreover, "the industry is still in search for the bottom of the US land rig count," investment bank Evercore ISI said last week in its annual Global E&P Spending Outlook for 2020.
This week's land rig count totaled 831, up by four but down from 1,144 this same week in 2018, Enverus' data show.
Evercore is forecasting the US land rig count to fall 10% in 2020 year on year, which is greater than its US capex spending forecast decline of 7% for next year.
The rig count gains are likely traceable to year-end drilling here and there as needed, possibly fueled by higher oil prices that finally mounted the $60/b milestone not seen in months, observers said.
'LAST-MINUTE PORTFOLIO CLEANUPS'
"It's a bit premature to talk of a sustained rebound yet, but there was a year-end increase in vertical oil drilling which suggests some private operators are doing some last-minute portfolio cleanups that they've budgeted," Enverus drilling analyst Bob Williams said.
The heightened activity "might even have been conditioned on" higher oil prices this last week in 2020 – the first time NYMEX crude was above $60/b since mid-July, Williams said.
"I think we're headed for a period of relative oil price stability while consolidation continues in the industry," he said. "That doesn't mean the consolidation won't continue, just that the rig count may have bottomed out."
This week's total rig count gains came from oil-directed rigs, which moved up 10 to 695. Conversely, natural gas-oriented rigs moved down six to 160. In addition, a one rig rise came from basins classified as neither oil nor gas.
As a result, drilling ticked up in two of the largest domestic oil basins — the Permian in West Texas/New Mexico, and Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas as each added several rigs.
The biggest boost came from the Eagle Ford, which rose by four rigs to 77 week on week while the Permian was up three to 404. But the Bakken Shale in North Dakota/Montana fell by three rigs, leaving 50, while the SCOOP-STACK plays of Oklahoma and the Denver-Julesburg Basin remained static week on week at 41 and 23, respectively.
In gas basins, the Haynesville Shale in East Texas/northwest Louisiana dropped four to 47 while Appalachia — the Marcellus Shale, mostly found in Pennsylvania and the Utica Shale mostly in Ohio — declined two rigs, leaving 49.
That basin comprises the Wet Marcellus which lost one rig for a total of 19; the Utica, which also fell by a rig, leaving 12; and the Dry Marcellus, which was unchanged week on week at 18.
PERMITS UP DESPITE BIG SLIDES IN SOME BASINS
As rig counts rose this week, so did permits — to 673 approvals this week, up by 55 from the prior week, although permitting slipped in some big basins. The biggest change was in the DJ Basin, down 71 this week to four, while the Eagle Ford was down 28 permits to total 60 and the Haynesville was down 22 to 10.
But the Permian was up 25 permits to 208 and the Dry Marcellus was up 17 permits to 24. Other named basins were up or down by less than 10 permits.
The period from late November through year end typically sees activity slowdowns as holiday vacations and exhausted capital budgets translate to flattish rig counts. Experts don't predict a great surge of drilling in the New Year, as by all accounts US capex should be down anywhere from 7% to upward of 10%.
That largely stems not only from oil price volatility where WTI prices, now slightly over $61/b, had dipped to the low $50s/b in October. Uncertainty on that front, as well as pressure from investors has resulted in an unprecedented commitment to capital discipline in the last couple of years, even with slightly higher oil prices this month than a few months ago.
Both oil and gas prices were up this week. WTI averaged $60.27/b for the current week, up $1.34, while WTI Midland price averaged $61.33/b, up $1.26 and the Bakken Composite price was $54.56/b, up $1.23.
For gas, Henry Hub price averaged $2.28/MMBtu, up 5 cents, while the price at Dominion South was $1.92/MMBtu, up 13 cents.
From early indications, oil executives appear set to continue a general program austerity in 2020 that focuses more on returning cash to shareholders, increasing cash flows and paying down debt than pushing dollars toward more wells and growing production.
On Monday, the US Energy Information Administration, in its latest monthly report that tracks monthly shale growth, projected domestic shale oil to grow by 30,000 b/d in January 2020 over December 2019 to nearly 9.14 million, a new record.
That said, the spectacular year-on-year shale growth appears of recent years to have stalled. While production is still growing, the rate is about 40% below a year earlier, EIA said.
Moreover, the 9.14 million forecast for January 2020 is up about 1.02 million b/d from January 2019 — well below increases seen over the past two years.