Well, that all escalated – or rather, de-escalated – quickly, huh? During the course of a six-day vacation around Christmas, the WTI price for crude dropped from $50/bbl down to $42/bbl. That takes a situation on oil prices that was already troubling for most domestic producers into the potentially-calamitous range for companies saddled with heavy debt loads and high lifting costs.
This latest collapse in crude prices comes on the heels of a longer-term drop that lasted throughout October and November. From October 2 through November 30, WTI fell from $76.41/bbl to $50.93, a decline of about 33%, as it became obvious to traders and investors that the market had become significantly over-supplied despite the re-implementation of U.S. sanctions on Iran by the Trump Administration.
This overall 45% drop in the domestic benchmark price for crude took place during the same period when producers were setting their capital drilling budgets for 2019. While one might think that reality would cause a significant curtailment of drilling activity during the first half of 2019, consider that only about a third of that price drop had come about by November 1, by which time most of these companies were finalizing those budgets. With WTI sitting at $63/bbl at that time, few were anticipating a further drop of this magnitude by the end of December.
Here’s the thing: Thousands of domestic drilling projects that are economic to drill at $63/bbl are uneconomic to drill at $42/bbl. So right now we are already beginning to see reports that some companies are going back and reconsidering some budgeting decisions that were made just a month ago. Others are likely still in wait-and-see mode as they try to assess whether the December price drop is a temporary result of panic-selling or a more long-term phenomenon related to a weakening global economy.
Given all of this, my first prediction is that we will see a gradual fall in the domestic U.S. rig count throughout the first half of 2019.