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US oil, gas rig count drops 16 to 838 on the week amid disciplined early 2020 outlooks

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Appalachia, Permian drop by five rigs each in biggest play changes

Drilling in 2020 looks flat with second-half 2019: Helmerich & Payne

E&P capex projections for 2020 largely down year on year

Houston — The total US oil and natural gas rig count dropped by 16 to 838 on the week, drilling data provider Enverus said Thursday, with the biggest in-basin changes coming from Appalachia amid persistently lower gas prices, and the Permian Basin.

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Each of the two basins lost five rigs, bringing the number in the Permian down to 418 rigs and to 46 in Appalachia, a largely gas-prone region, as dismal gas prices stayed largely well below $2/MMBtu.

Appalachia includes both the Marcellus Shale and the Utica Shale plays. The Marcellus lost four rigs, leaving a total 36, while the Utica lost one rig, leaving 10.

The total US rig count has largely bobbed at or below 840 since late December. Those levels were last seen in February 2017 when the domestic count was rapidly rising in response to oil prices that were then breaking through stalemated levels of below-$50/b the year before.

Crude oil was trading just above $50/b on Thursday.

Intra-basin rig counts largely stayed the same or were up or down by one or two rigs against last week.

Click here for full-size image


Outlooks from North American land drillers this week show a needle that isn't moving much this year compared to 2019, even with a relative bright spot of the Permian Basin, sited in West Texas and New Mexico.

"Capital discipline [by E&P companies] will remain a prevailing theme" for 2020, John Lindsay, CEO of driller Helmerich & Payne, said on his company's earnings call earlier this week.

"We expect industry activity to look similar to the average level experienced during the second half of calendar 2019, which implies a modest increase from current levels," Lindsay said.

Rival land driller Patterson-UTI's rig count bottomed in the fourth quarter, and will "modestly" increase in early 2020, CEO Andy Hendricks said Thursday during his company's Q4 earnings call.

But the Permian, the US' biggest oil basin and also a significant gas basin, is doing well and in Q4 partly offset continued weakness in other basins, Hendricks said.

For example, Patterson's average rig revenue was $23,980/operating day in Q4, while its average rig direct cost was $15,540/operating day, he said. Both figures were higher than expected, although higher costs stemmed from reactivation of more Permian rigs.


Moreover, the level of geographic fluctuation in Patterson's rig count will remain "relatively elevated" in Q1, as more Permian rigs in the field will offset softness elsewhere, Hendricks said.

While many more upstream producers have yet to report Q4 earnings – which typically are paired with their capital budgets for the year – several more have announced capital budgets for 2020. Most will underspend either earlier 2020 targets or last year's actual capital outlays.

For example, ConocoPhillips's spending this year should weigh in at $6.5 billion-$6.7 billion, about 6% under its average projected $7 billion/year capex target for the next decade.

Permian/Bakken Shale producer Oasis Petroleum said its capital spending would be $700 million-$730 million for 2020 -- 5% less than its earlier projected $750 million capital budget.

Rigs in the Bakken remained flat this past week at 54.

Cabot Oil & Gas has pared its 2020 capex substantially year on year to $575 million, down 29% from projected spending last year.

"Faster cycle times, lower costs, and lower commodity prices are pushing down budgets in 2020," investment bank TPH said in a Wednesday investor note. "After updating our models to strip and accounting for lower capital costs, we now see our US upstream capex budgets trending down about 15% in 2020."

Earlier industry projections had US capexes collectively down about 7%-10%.

TPH noted that gas basins are harder hit, and should be down roughly 21%. "We would expect more cuts to potentially come in 2H 2020 as the industry loses hedge coverage heading into 2021," the bank said.