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Houston — The US oil and gas rig count snapped its downward trend this week, rising to 855 with the addition of 15 rigs - the largest weekly gain since May - as operators cranked up activity ahead a close to the fourth-quarter reporting period, drilling data from Enverus showed.

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Oil-directed drilling made the largest gain during the week with addition of nine rigs. The weekly change included four rigs added in the Permian to 401 and two rigs in the Denver-Julesburg to 23.

Gas-directed drillers added four rigs during the week, including two in the Marcellus to 38.

The uptick in drilling activity this week, which was likely tied to fourth-quarter production and drilling targets, appears unlikely to endure according to analysts and market observers.

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In a 2020 energy outlook released Wednesday, S&P Global Platts Analytics predicted US shale activity to continue slowing next year as drillers maintain their focus on capital discipline in the current low-price environment.

After breaking above $60/b in Q1, WTI crude prices are forecast fall back to the upper-$50/b range in 2020. Still, this is enough to see US producers grow oil output by an estimated 1.3 million b/d, the outlook showed.

According to Morgan Stanley, though, that growth is likely to come from a smaller number of producers and with fewer rigs, as lower prices favor industry consolidation among highly capitalized and integrated oil companies and E&Ps, Devin McDermott, director of North American E&P, said in a research note Wednesday.


On Wednesday, WTI crude prices were assessed at $59.18/b, outpacing the past 30-day average at $57.75/b.

In the gas market, preliminary trade data showed the benchmark Henry Hub price unchanged on the day at $2.26/MMBtu. Over the past month, prices at the Louisiana location have averaged nearly $2.43/MMBtu, S&P Global Platts data showed.

At current price levels, US producers have faced a narrow profit margins, especially in dry gas plays like the Haynesville, but also in the lower-margin oil plays - most notably, the SCOOP/STACK.

Rig counts in both the Louisiana and Oklahoma plays dipped to multiyear lows this week as the US industry continues to consolidate drilling activity in the Permian Basin and other high-return, oil-heavy plays where operators are likely to perform better in a prolonged low-price environment.

Haynesville rig counts dropped by two this week to 51 rigs, the lowest in just over two years.

In the dry-gas focused play, half-cycle internal rates of return in December are now estimated at less than 9%, down from over 20% in late 2018, data from S&P Global Platts Analytics shows.

Heading into 2020, operators there aren't likely to see much improvement on those returns either.

At the Carthage hub - where much of the Hayneville's gas is sold to market - the 2020 forward curve is currently assessed at just $2.15/MMBtu. The nearby and more premium Henry Hub hasn't fared much better with the calendar-year curve now valued $2.27/MMBtu, Platts M2MS data shows.

In the SCOOP/STACK the rig count this week dropped by three to 41, matching lows seen last month and previous to that, in mid-2016. Rigs in the Oklahoma play last dipped below 41 in 2010.

A basin once considered to be the next Permian, the SCOOP/STACK has fallen out of favor recently as varying rock quality and increasingly unpredictable, often disappointing rates of return have seen major acreage holders pause drilling activity there.

-- J. Robinson,

-- Edited by James Bambino,