The Baker Hughes US oil rig count – a proxy for health and optimism in the overall upstream sector – has just reached a 31-month high to 1067 rigs, though nowhere near the all-time high of 1609 back in July 2014. This recent development is not surprising; crude prices have been trending upwards and reached a new 24-month peak last week as well.
Looking at the breakout data, it is possible that some of the gains could be from re-started sites shut down in the wake of Hurricane Michael bypassing the Gulf Coast, but the main additions are still coming from onshore Texas. The home to the mammoth Permian and the Eagle Ford shale basins, the Permian alone has 490 active oil and gas rigs. While infrastructural bottlenecks – mainly restrained pipeline capacity – have caused drilling activities to slow down since June, there are still gains to be made. Meanwhile, the lower prices caused by shale liquids being trapped in the Permian has led drillers to look elsewhere, where prices are stronger and infrastructure less clogged up – including re-looking at the Bakken and promising areas like Austin Chalk and Niobrabra. Recent auctions have seen record-high prices for acreage in Louisiana and Alabama; even in the Permian, interest remains high, with a recent sale in the New Mexican side of the basin setting a new record of more than double the previous high.
This could be key to navigating the coming global supply crunch, triggered by new American sanctions on Iran, and exacerbated by continuing problems in key OPEC producers such as Venezuela and Libya. Although Russia has raised its production and Saudi Arabia has pledged to fill the hole that Iranian crude will be leaving, the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi places the Kingdom in a position of belligerence with the rest of the world. So the US may find itself in a position to have to provide extra volumes on its own – which may be why active rigs have been increasing, and new areas being sought. There is a bit of a spanner in the works, though. The trade spat between the USA and China has led Chinese importers to slam the brakes on importing US crude, even though American crude is not yet on the list of products tariffed by China. LNG and even NGLs – propane and ethane imported to produce petrochemicals – have also seen significant slowdown.
How high can the American rig count get? If prices continue to march up – and there are many that believe the US$100/b mark will be reached soon – then the number of oil rigs drilling in the US could rise past 1200 again. But to reach the dizzying heights above 1500, which was the average over most of 2014, is unlikely. Not because there are lesser volumes of liquid underground – although studies are now showing that the decline rate in mature shale fields is alarmingly high – but because of consolidation. From a collection of many, many small players in the early 2010s, the shale landscape now is consolidating into a collection of medium and large players, with behemoths like ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP also muscling in. A rising tide of crude prices is lifting American drilling activity, but the magnitude of gains in 2018 will be different – due to a combination of infrastructure bottlenecks, fragile geopolitics and sector structural changes.
The main danger is short memories – the zeal of cashing in on high oil prices is what caused the 2015 crash and high corporate debt, and the enthusiasm brewing in American shale again could lead to history repeating itself.
Baker Hughes US Active Rig Count:
- 21 October 2011 – 1079 oil rigs, 927 gas rigs
- 19 October 2012 – 1410 oil rigs, 435 gas rigs
- 18 October 2013 – 1361 oil rigs, 372 gas rigs
- 17 October 2014 – 1590 oil rigs, 328 gas rigs
- 23 October 2015 – 594 oil rigs, 193 gas rigs
- 21 October 2016 – 443 oil rigs, 108 gas rigs
- 20 October 2017 – 736 oil rigs, 177 gas rigs
- 19 October 2018 – 873 oil rigs, 194 gas rigs