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Have nat gas rig counts bottomed out?

Ingrid Pan, Sr Energy Analyst

  • Natural gas rigs totaled 353 last week. Since early May, natural gas rigs drilling have been within the narrow range of 349 to 354, perhaps signaling a bottom.
  • Nat gas rigs have dropped off steeply since mid-March, when rigs numbered 431. Also, natural gas rigs are down significantly from year end 2012 when they numbered 439.
  • From a longer term perspective, natural gas rigs have generally been declining or flat since 3Q11.
  • A focus on the most productive wells, an increase in efficiency, and gas produced as a result of oil-targeted drilling are all factors that have contributed to flush natural gas supply despite a dramatic cutback in rigs.

Baker Hughes, an oilfield services company, reported that rigs targeting natural gas increased last week to 353 (up from 349) for the week ending June 28. The rig count had largely been decreasing throughout early 2013, even as prices had experienced a strong rally from $3.15/MMBtu in mid-February to ~$4.40/MMBtu in mid-April. Natural gas currently trades around $3.60/MMBtu. The drop in rig count from February through April could have signaled that despite the strong rally, natural gas prices of over ~$4.00/MMBtu still are not high enough to incentivize producers to shift significantly more capital towards natural gas. However, in the last two months, natural gas rigs drilling have been relatively flat, staying within a narrow range from 349 to 354. This could perhaps signal a bottom, the current bare minimum of natural gas drilling that the upstream sector is willing to fund in the present environment.

From a longer term perspective, natural gas rigs have been largely falling or flat since October 2011 in response to sustained low natural gas prices (see natural gas price graph below).

Natural gas supply and prices are major drivers of valuation for natural gas producers such as Chesapeake Energy (CHK), Comstock Resources (CRK), Southwestern Energy (SWN), and Range Resources (RRC).

To provide some context, the number of rigs drilling for natural gas can be indicative of how companies feel about the economics of drilling for natural gas. More natural gas rigs drilling generally means companies feel bullish on the natural gas environment. Additionally, rigs drilling can also be indicative of future supply as more rigs drilling implies more production. Therefore, market participants monitor rig counts to get a sense of oil and gas producers’ sentiment and as a rough indicator of future expected supply.

As aforementioned, rig counts had largely been in decline since late 2011. With this decline in rigs throughout most of 2012, one would expect a drastic cutback in natural gas production, and therefore a bump in prices and natural gas producer valuations. Despite this, supply has remained flattish thus far, with prices rebounding somewhat since 2Q12 lows, but mostly from demand drivers rather than supply cutbacks. The below chart shows natural gas production in the US over the past twelve months and one can see that supply has not fallen off significantly relative to rig count declines.

There are a few major likely reasons why natural gas production has not yet followed the drop off in rig counts.

  1. The rigs targeting gas right now are likely targeting the most productive and economic wells, and the rigs that were put out of work were targeting the more marginal wells. This has resulted in a large cut in rigs, without a proportionate cut in supply.
  2. Rigs that are classified as targeting oil are not included in the natural gas rig count, and oil wells produce both oil and natural gas (often called “associated gas” when it comes from an oil well). Oil prices have remained relatively robust, and the pace of oil drilling has remained frenzied, with the by-product being associated natural gas production.
  3. Producers have become more efficient at producing more gas with less rigs due to advancing technology and deeper knowledge about the areas in which they are drilling.

That is not to say that supply cuts will not be experienced at all. Note that in the above graph US natural gas production goes only through March 2013, as that is the last period that the DOE has reported thus far. One has yet to see what the DOE will report for April and May. Additionally, companies plan their expenditures year by year, and it is likely that given the continued low price of natural gas and continued support in the price of oil, that companies will further shift capital away from natural gas and towards oil in their 2013 drilling budgets.

However, thus far the rig reductions have not put a significant dent in natural gas supply.  Therefore, natural gas prices have remained relatively low which has muted the margins and valuation of domestic natural gas weighted producers such as Chesapeake Energy (CHK), Comstock Resources (CRK), Southwestern Energy (SWN), and EXCO Resources (XCO). Additionally, natural gas prices affect the US Natural Gas Fund (UNG), an ETF designed to track Henry Hub natural gas prices, the major domestic benchmark for the commodity.

Natural gas rigs increased slightly last week and though have been flat for the past two months perhaps signaling a bottom. If natural gas drilling remains flat, it is ultimately neutral for natural gas supply (barring increased production from associated gas from oil drilling).



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