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Spotlight: Capital discipline is slowing growth in US oil production. But how long will it last?

Highlights

The current growth trajectory of US oil production is not in line with sustained higher oil prices, now trading at $75/b WTI. Capital discipline from public companies is reducing oil growth, while small/private companies are the ones driving most of the drilling activity.

Lower oil production in 2021 (down 330,000 b/d year on year) translates into less associated gas, requiring more production from non-associated plays and resulting in an increase in total gas production in 2021 (up 290,000 boe/d year on year).

Thanks to higher non-associated gas production, increased connectivity (reduction in flaring) and additional processing capacity, NGL production is expected to also grow this year (up 290,000 b/d year on year).

There is upside to our oil production forecast which hinges on small/privates operators accelerating their current drilling trajectory and public companies (mainly large/mid-caps) no longer keeping capital discipline.

A version of this Spotlight from S&P Global Platts Analytics was first published July 8.

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US rigs and frack crews continue to rise as WTI remains above $70/b. Growth is triggered mainly by small/private operators while public producers are maintaining capital discipline to try to repay debt and improve returns to shareholders.

The rig count for small/private operators is only 2% below pre-pandemic levels while majors are still 68% below. Other operators (large/small/mid cap) are keeping capital discipline but with less rigor than the majors. Small/private operators have increased drilling activity at more than twice the rate of other operators, and currently represent 59% of total US rig count (42% when the pandemic started).

Also, their share of US oil production (currently approximately one-third) will continue to grow as they keep increasing rig activity. US production appears to have hit a low point in June with a rate of 10.9 million b/d of crude and growth is expected to start again. On an exit to exit basis, our latest forecast calls for an increase of 360,000 b/d in 2021 and 940,000 b/d in 2022. It averages 11 million b/d in 2021 (down 330,000 b/d year on year) and 11.9 million b/d (up 870,000 b/d year on year) in 2022 but still below pre-pandemic levels of 12.8 million b/d.

The reduction in associated gas in 2021 is being compensated by more production from non-associated plays, mainly the Marcellus which is up 1.46 Bcf/d (240,000 boe/d) resulting in a total increase of 290,000 boe/d year on year in 2021 gas production. Dry gas production is expected to average 15.76 million boe/d (94.56 Bcf/d) in 2021. NGL production is also up in 2021 (up 290,000 b/d year on year) due to additional processing capacity and enhanced recovery capability (higher GPMs), as well as connectivity (reduced gas flaring) to demand markets. It is expected to average 5.45 million b/d in 2021, exceeding pre-pandemic levels.

For 2022, we forecast year-on-year increases for oil production of 870,000 b/d, for gas of 620,000 boe/d and for NGLs of 440,000 b/d. More detailed analysis of our 2021 and 2022 production forecast for oil, gas and NGLs can be found in the recently published spotlight (US production forecast reconciliation report).