Drilling in U.S. shale-gas formations may tumble as companies run short of cash after prices for the fuel languished below the cost of production for more than a year.
Natural-gas explorers will realize the need to cut drilling in the next few months, said Murry Gerber, chairman of EQT Corp., the largest producer in the Appalachian Basin. “I think the rig count is going to come down, and then you’ll see the production follow,” he said in a telephone interview.
U.S. gas output climbed the past four years, contributing to a glut, as drilling advances unlocked fuel-rich shale formations from Louisiana to Pennsylvania. Gerber said producers typically need prices of $6.50 to $7 per million British thermal units to make a “reasonable” return. Gas hasn’t been that high since December 2008 and traded below $4 this week.
“Investors have expressed, some of them at least, their concern about what appears to be an irrational resolve to continue drilling even while gas prices fall,” said Arthur Berman, director of Labyrinth Consulting Services near Houston. “I expect that that sentiment will perhaps become stronger.”
Baker Hughes Inc. today reported a 1.7 percent drop in the number of active U.S. gas rigs, the first decline since Dec. 25. The rig count reached a record 1,606 in September 2008, before plunging as the recession dragged down gas prices and a collapse in credit markets forced companies to slash drilling budgets.
Buttressed by revitalized capital markets, cash from asset sales and hedging contracts locking in higher prices, producers accelerated drilling in 2009’s second half. Even as prices for the heating and power-plant fuel slid to a seven-year low in September, the rig count climbed. It rose in 33 of the past 40 weeks. Before today’s report, the count had jumped 28 percent this year.
“It was kind of like people woke up and looked around and said, ‘Gee, the world didn’t end,’” said Allen Brooks, a managing director at Houston investment bank Parks Paton Hoepfl & Brown.
XTO Energy Inc., the biggest U.S. gas producer, made such good bets on its hedging before prices slid that it was able to raise at least $1.7 billion by settling contracts early.
James Halloran, a consultant at Financial America Securities in Cleveland, said that under some contracts with landowners, producers risk losing leases if they don’t drill. Gas prices will remain low “until somebody wakes up in this whole thing and says, ‘I haven’t got any money, I can’t do this anymore,’” he said.
EQT Drills More
EQT announced a stock sale in March to fund increased drilling.
“We wish we could just turn the gas on tomorrow and have it all come out when the prices are high and shut it all off when the prices are low, but that’s just not practical,” Gerber said. He said that unlike most producers, Pittsburgh-based EQT can keep drilling profitably at current prices, partly because it acquired leases before land costs jumped.
After continuing to drill at money-losing prices to show investors gains in reserves and output, many producers won’t have enough cash to fund new wells at their recent pace, said Berman of Labyrinth Consulting.
Halliburton Co., the world’s second-largest oilfield contractor, said the “resiliency” of U.S. gas production may keep prices low for several quarters. Producers are shifting drilling to gas liquids and oil, Halliburton said.
“The current gas-pricing fundamentals don’t seem to support the degree of dry gas activity which is under way at the moment,” Tim Probert, president of global business lines at Houston-based Halliburton, told investors on an April 19 conference call. “We certainly see that weakening.”
Petrohawk Energy Corp. said April 13 that it will cut its number of rigs in the Haynesville Shale of Louisiana and Texas by 20 percent and increase drilling for more lucrative gas liquids in South Texas. Houston-based Petrohawk also agreed to sell a stake in its Haynesville pipelines for $875 million and cut its capital budget by $100 million.
Joan Dunlap, vice president of investor relations at Petrohawk, declined to say at what gas price the company’s wells can break even.
Shale joint ventures signed with major oil companies by such producers as Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Atlas Energy Inc., as well as the sale of XTO to Exxon Mobil Corp., may help slow drilling, said Haag Sherman, chief investment officer at Salient Partners in Houston.
“I think you will see people cut back because you’re moving assets in the hands of stronger players, and I think the stronger players are going to be more disciplined about how they allocate dollars,” said Sherman, who helps manage about $8.2 billion.
Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Europe’s largest oil company by market value, invested about $2.2 billion in onshore North American gas projects last year. It had enough prospects to spend $4 billion, said Marvin Odum, Shell’s U.S. president.
“There’s somewhat of a self-correcting system here, right?” Odum said in a March 26 interview. “If the gas price doesn’t support the economics of drilling, then drilling’s going to slow down.”
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