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With $50 oil, this U.S. shale company plans return to drilling

A floorhand operates a Chevron oil drilling rig near Taft, California.
Chip Chipman | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As oil hovers near $50 per barrel, Pioneer Natural Resources has become more optimistic and is planning for the return of five to 10 rigs, once it is confident the upturn in oil is more sustainable.

"I think it is fair to say we're more optimistic than we were last month and even the month before that. We're cautiously optimistic that we're going to see improvement here in the second half of the year," said Frank Hopkins, senior vice president of investment relations at Pioneer.

Pioneer said in its earnings release last month that it is "expecting to add five to 10 horizontal drilling rigs when the price of oil recovers to approximately $50 per barrel and the outlook for oil supply/demand fundamentals is positive."

Hopkins said the company has been monitoring the oil inventory data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration and when officials are convinced the market has turned, they will move on putting the rigs into operation in the Northern Spraberry/Wolfcamp. "What's really going to convince us is that inventory levels continue to come down," he said. Wednesday's EIA report showed a drawdown in U.S. supply of 4.2 million barrels last week from the week earlier level.

Read MoreOil tests $50 a barrel as supply concerns rise

"It's not so much getting to $50 at a particular point in time. It's having a view that oil at $50 will stay at $50. The industry supply/demand fundamentals have to improve. We have to have a view that it's a positive price environment," said Hopkins.

Hopkins said Pioneer, viewed by analysts as among the stronger of the U.S. drillers, was running a total of 24 rigs at the end of last year. "We'll be down to 12 by the end of June. We shut down our Eagle Ford operations, and we shut down our joint venture area in the Permian Basin. The rigs we put back would go to our most prolific area," he said.

While more optimistic for a higher price, Hopkins said he and other executives are watching the June 2 meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. "We want to clearly see what's going to happen at the OPEC meeting next week. Hopefully it turns out to be a nonevent," he said.

Both Brent and West Texas Intermediate crude futures rose above $50 per barrel Thursday, for the first time since October. The number is seen as a psychological level, and it could signal the restart of some U.S. oil production if it holds. WTI was later trading at $49.48 per barrel Thursday afternoon.

Analysts say some companies should resume drilling activities with WTI at $50, but that does not affect much of U.S. production. Francisco Blanch, head of commodities and derivatives research at Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, said $60 is a level where much more activity would come in.

"As the oil price recovers, people pay down their debt and they're going to repair their balance sheets. In the $60s, I think things change a lot," he said, noting $50 will be an option for a few companies that are better capitalized and on the right acreage. U.S. oil rig count is 332, about half of last year's count, and well below the peak above 1,600 in 2014.