This Chart Shows Why the Number of Oil Rigs May Not Matter Anymore

Rig history repeats itself

A drill pusher uses a torch to cut the top off a 50-gallon metal drum on an oil drilling site.

Photographer: Ty Wright

The number of oil rigs drilling new wells in the U.S. has collapsed at an unprecedented rate. The weekly number has gathered a huge following as investors try to figure out when the crash in oil prices has reached its bottom. Strangely, the number may be irrelevant.

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Rig counts have long been used to help predict future oil and gas production. In the past week drillers idled 98 rigs, marking the 10th consecutive decline. The total U.S. rig count is down 30 percent since October, an unprecedented retreat. The theory goes that when oil rigs decline, fewer wells are drilled, less new oil is discovered, and oil production slows. 

But production isn't slowing yet. In fact, last week the U.S. pumped more crude than at any time since the 1970s. “The headline U.S. oil rig count offers little insight into the outlook for U.S. oil production growth,” Goldman Sachs analyst Damien Courvalin wrote in a Feb. 10 report

We've seen this before, in natural gas. The chart below shows a striking separation between natural gas production, in orange, and natural gas rigs, in blue. The massive increase in efficiency this represents helped fuel the U.S. fracking boom and has led to some of the world's lowest prices in natural gas, in gray. 

Oil Output Expected to Follow Similar Pattern to Gas

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Why is this happening? For one thing, both the rigs and the oil wells are becoming more productive. Producers are getting better at blasting oil and gas out of the ground. The rigs that are being idled tend to be the older machines, and the most effective rigs are being concentrated on the most-productive oil fields. 

“The relationship between rigs and energy production disconnected in 2008,” Eric Kuhle, a Wood Mackenzie analyst covering oil and gas in North America, told Bloomberg News reporter Lynn Doan. “We see oil production growth slowing, but not declining.”

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