A good friend of mine who runs the government affairs shop at a large independent producer has a favorite saying: You can always count on the oil and gas industry to mess up a good thing. The last time he said that to me was about this time a year ago, when it was apparent that, after a terrible year during which the oil price for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) had sunk as low as $26/bbl, the price would top $50 by the end of the year in the wake of the agreement between OPEC, Russia and several other non-OPEC nations to curtail exports.
We were discussing the probability that, in response to that higher commodity price, the upstream segment of the industry would respond by activating a large number of idled drilling rigs early in 2017 and drill its way right back down to a lower price. Which, of course, is exactly what happened: The industry brought more than 200 additional rigs online during January and February, and another 100 or so during the next couple of months, and the market responded by trading for WTI at $43/bbl by the end of April, even as OPEC and Russia reported high levels of compliance with their lower production quotas.
Now here we are, coming toward the end of another year, and once again we have a situation in which crude prices are ramping up to an even higher level, thanks to steadily rising demand, anticipation that OPEC and Russia will renew their export agreement through 2018, and other favorable market signals. One of those other favorable signals is the fact that the rig count in the U.S. has fallen off by about 70 rigs in the last seven weeks, as shale producers have executed on more conservative drilling budgets during the second half of the year. As a result, the rate of increase in overall domestic oil production has basically leveled off at levels the market can absorb.
So will the U.S. industry mess up a good thing again in 2018? It might surprise my good friend that this time I don’t think it will, at least not to the extent that it did over the first half of 2017. This view could change by the end of December, but right now there are several factors that indicate that, while drilling will definitely pick up again after January 1, it will be a more muted response than we saw this year.