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Oil rig counts up – increased drilling generally positive for companies across the spectrum

Ingrid Pan, Sr Energy Analyst

  • US oil rig counts rose on the week from 1,390 to 1,395. Rising rig counts could signal that oil producers are feeling positive about the current price environment and are willing to put more capital to work to produce oil.
  • The number of domestic oil rigs drilling rose dramatically from as low as 179 in June 2009 to 1,432 in August 2012. Since then rigs had fallen off somewhat, possibly in response to weaker oil prices.
  • For much of the beginning of 2013, oil rig counts were on the increase or stable as oil prices had remained in a relatively stable range.

Rig counts represent how many rigs are actively drilling for hydrocarbons. Baker Hughes, an oilfield services company, reports rig counts on a weekly basis. The company notes that rig count trends are “governed by oil company exploration and development spending which is influenced by the current and expected price of oil and natural gas”. Therefore, rig counts can represent how confident oil and gas producers such as ExxonMobil (XOM), ConocoPhillips (COP), Hess Corp. (HES), and Chevron (CVX) feel about the environment, as more rigs working means more spending.

The above chart shows US oil rig counts from January 2005. Last week, the Baker Hughes oil rig count rose from 1,390 to 1,395, a sight increase. The increase in oil rigs drilling could be a signal that oil producers are feeling positive about the current oil price environment as they are putting more capital to work to produce oil. Recently, oil prices have been buoyed by geopolitical unrest in the Middle East which could possibly explain the increased rig count, though one cannot draw a hard conclusion from this single week’s data point.

During the 2008 crisis, oil rig counts had fallen significantly. However, since then, the US oil rig count had exploded as oil prices rebounded quickly and the development of shale plays such as the Bakken in North Dakota opened up attractive opportunities for oil drilling. After the massive increase, oil rig counts had fallen off somewhat in 3Q12. Some market participants noted that rising costs in some rapidly developing basins incentivized producers to cut back spending somewhat. Additionally, oil and gas producers may have pulled back spending in reaction to a dip in oil prices in 2Q12.

However since the dip last year, oil prices had remained relatively robust. Oil had a strong rally beginning in December of last year. West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the benchmark US crude, was trading around $85/barrel as recently as the second week of December and reached $97/barrel in mid-February. Excluding brief periods of weakness, WTI has largely been range-bound between ~$90/barrel and ~$97/barrel. Recently, WTI has broken through that range as political unrest in Egypt and a large inventory draw have pushed prices upward. Please see “Why Middle East and North Africa turmoil could cause an oil price spike”  and “Large oil inventory draw supportive of oil prices, WTI breaks $100” for more.

Given that prices have remained relatively high and stable, it makes sense that producers were more constructive on the operating environment and would put more rigs to work. From January 4 to July 5, the rig count increased by 77, or 6%.

This past week’s slight increase in rig counts, if continued, could be a signal that oil companies are feeling more positive about the current price and operating environment, which would be logical given the recent increase in oil prices. Additionally, more US oil drilling is generally positive for companies across the energy spectrum with US assets from producers (such as the XOM, COP, HES, and CVX as mentioned above) to midstream companies to service companies, many of which are found in the Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLE).

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