Oil and gas drillers plan to add rigs, but it's feast or famine in US fields

Oil workers in the Permian Basin outside Midland, Texas
Brittany Sowacke | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Drillers are planning to put rigs back to work in the American oil patch this year, but it's a feast or famine affair from region to region.

Many publicly-traded exploration and production companies that have reported quarterly earnings thus far have signaled an intention to stand up more oil and gas rigs, following a 75-percent collapse in the rig count from the highs of 2014.

But nearly all of the additions are planned for the prolific Permian Basin of Texas, and in the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale field of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. Meanwhile, North Dakota's Bakken formation and the Lonestar State's Eagle Ford will see little increased activity.

The Permian is going to be the future of the U.S. and help in world supply ... It's got the best rock, obviously the best margins, and it will provide essentially the only growth long-term.
Timothy Dove
COO, Pioneer Natural Resources

The plans reflect recent trends across the United States as companies seek to squeeze every last bit of productivity out of their best assets amid a nearly two-year price rout. But some industry insiders see the announcements as a harbinger of a more fundamental and long-lasting shift.

During Pioneer Natural Resources' earnings conference call, COO Timothy Dove said he sees no way for Bakken and Eagle Ford production to recover to pre-downturn levels.

"That's why I'm confident the world needs the Permian. The Permian is going to be the future of the U.S. and help in world supply," he said.

"It's got the best rock, obviously the best margins, and it will provide essentially the only growth long-term," he said.

The U.S. oil rig count has risen in nine of the last 10 weeks. Over that period in the Permian, drillers have steadily increased the count by 35 rigs to a total of 177. In the Williston Basin, which contains the Bakken, the rig count has fluctuated, between 22 and 27 rigs.

Earlier this year, IHS analyst Raoul LeBlanc told CNBC that Bakken drillers were embarking on a program of "severe high grading," or cramming rigs into their best acreage in just three counties. That raised concerns that drillers will essentially suck the best rocks dry, possibly advancing the timeframe for when wildcatters will quit the Bakken.

To be sure, drillers have been high-grading rigs throughout the country, but the Bakken drillers generally face a higher hurdle to profitability.

Crude must fetch $50 to $60 a barrel in order for drillers to ramp up Bakken production, according to North Dakota budget officials. In the Permian, the break-even price in some fields is below $40.

Oil prices fell more than 20 percent from June into bear market territory this week, threatening to break below $39 a barrel before they bounced back to above $41.

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That backslide raises questions about whether drillers' plans to increase their rig counts are sustainable, even in the Permian.

The announcements by drillers thus far suggest a roughly 16-percent increase in rig activity by the end of the year, according to Guggenheim Securities.

Piper Jaffray's energy investment bank Simmons & Co. counts about 40 rig additions from this earnings season and in recent operational updates. Of those, about 17 are planned for the Permian and eight are due for the Marcellus.

But analysts at Simmons said drillers could scrap some of the rig additions planned for the fourth quarter if oil prices continue to slide from June's peak. Some drillers need futures to bounce back in order to carry out their plans, Simmons said.

Those moves likely have drillers that yet to report quarterly results poring over their releases and stripping out overly optimistic language, the firm said.

"The tenor of Q2 earnings calls have followed the descent in oil prices (and stock prices) — the earlier calls extolled more buoyant outlooks while the more recent ones have endorsed more defensive ones," Simmons wrote.