Prepare for the Rebound in Drilling

Do you remember this time last year? As spring turned to summer, energy prices were moving upward. By mid-July 2008, oil prices peaked at $147 per barrel. But as with Gen. Pickett and his famous charge at Gettysburg, that lofty level of $147 was the high-water mark for oil prices.

By August of last year, the price of oil was retreating, and it was a hard slog on the way down. By midwinter, in December 2008 and January 2009, oil prices were in the $30s per barrel – a drop of over 75% within six months. It was a wild ride.

Natural gas had a similar rise and fall last year. In July 2008, the NYMEX price for natural gas was around $13 per mcf (thousand cubic feet). By October 2008, that price was cut in half. In fact, natural gas prices trended down throughout the chilly winter of 2008-2009. The current economic pullback – our Great Recession – means that many industries, as well as the electric power sector, are using less natural gas. Think of the mills, plants, factories and other industrial and commercial sites that have scaled backor closed. They don’t need nearly as much natural gas or electric power.

Thus, energy demand has tumbled in North America. The price of natural gas has fallen, and hard. For a while this spring, gas prices couldn’t find a bottom. It’s only been in the past two months or so that the price of natural gas leveled off at around $4 per mcf.

Right now with natural gas prices under $4 we have an extraordinary opportunity! $4 natural gas is the equivalent of $30 oil – it just won’t last.  Better yet, I’ve got the perfect way to play this trend – a company that could hand you as much as 340%.

But before we get to the company I’m talking about, let’s take a look at what happened to natural gas drilling…

Drilling Activity Dropped Off a Cliff

Along with the price collapse for oil and natural gas, there was a dramatic worldwide drop in the count of drilling rigs. Drilling activity scaled back precipitously, in a tumble reminiscent of the previous hard times in the oil patch back in 1981 and 1982. Here’s a comparison between then and now.

If you want more exact details, here are the most recent rig count numbers from Baker Hughes, the world’s preeminent drill bit manufacturer.

Look at that change from last year! In North America – the U.S. and Canada combined – the rig count just plain fell through the floor to a recent level below 1,000. (It has crept up to 1,065 in the past couple of weeks.)

With low oil prices, there was less drilling in the U.S. and Canada, of course. But look at the international rig count. It’s interesting that the international count didn’t drop off all that much over the past year – only about 10% or so, as opposed to a drop of almost 60% in North America.

Why the difference between North America and internationally? The big pullback in North American activity was in rigs drilling for natural gas. That is, over half the drilling activity in North America is for gas. It’s different in the international arena, where most rigs are drilling for oil.

The bottom line is this…

The low prices for North American natural gas didn’t support drilling, hence the massive North American rig pullback. Also, much of the North American gas drill-out of recent years was financed with borrowed money. And the credit crunch froze almost all of the funds that were going into the North American gas-drilling sector.

So less demand led to lower natural gas prices. Lower prices could not support the financing model for the North American gas-drilling business. The easy money for gas wells dried up. And the rig count plummeted. Now what?

The Rig Count Has Found a Bottom

It looks like the worldwide rig count has found its bottom in recent weeks. In fact, the numbers are creeping up a bit, according to Baker Hughes. What’s going on?

Since February, the price of oil has steadily crept back to the $70 range per barrel. That’s up 100% from the midwinter low. The oil price increase clearly supports more drilling.

Why are oil prices up? Here are a few reasons. Cheap oil last winter led directly to lower fuel prices worldwide. Hence, overall world demand for oil stabilized, and in some areas, fuel demand has actually strengthened. Meanwhile, OPEC has cut oil output by about 5 million barrels per day. There’s less supply hitting the markets. Also, China has been filling its strategic petroleum reserve. And Chinese demand is up, year over year. The Chinese are not only buying new cars, they’re driving them.

As for North American natural gas, the price has stabilized at about $4 per mcf. That’s a low number. In fact, it’s barely enough to keep the industry alive in the short term. Some people call it a “gas glut.” It depends on our time frame. Long term? At $4 per mcf, natural gas is barely on life-support. This situation can’t last and it’s our opportunity to get into the KEY ENABLING TECHNOLOGY of the natural gas market, and do it with very limited risk!

Depletion Still Matters

At the same time, old Mr. Depletion is working his efforts. Hydrocarbons are, of course, depleting substances. Every barrel of oil lifted to the surface is one barrel less down in the hole. Every mcf of natural gas that blows out of the formation is one less mcf down there.

So each day of hydrocarbon production brings every well one day closer to the end of its useful life. And with most modern wells, the output curves are falling off pretty steeply in the first year or two. It’s counter to what a lot of people think, but it’s reality.

Wells don’t just produce large volumes of oil and gas year after year. Indeed, it’s a rare well (at least in North America, which has been drilled like a pincushion) that produces strongly after even one year. Most wells just plain slack off and output drops after the first few months or so. Sure, a well eventually will settle in at some level of output. And that level might last for many years. But in almost EVERY case, it’s a much lower level than in the first few months of the well’s existence.

We Need to Drill Wells

The only way around depletion is to drill more wells. In a broad sense, you have to look at well drilling as a long-term industrial process. The energy industry needs a pipeline (so to speak) of thousands of drilling prospects that get drilled on a regular basis. Break the process – with wild swings in the pricing mechanism, for example – and you’ve got trouble. We just plain need to drill wells.

But with the rig counts way down in the past year, a lot of those wells we need to drill have not been drilled. Thus, the energy process is derailed. The future is NOT now. In fact, the energy future is now moving out of our immediate control. The U.S. could be looking at serious depletion-induced natural gas shortages within a year to18 months. So the drilling cycle needs to kick back into gear.

Sooner or later – and I believe sooner – the rig count HAS to head back up. On the oil side, prices can support most drilling at this point.

Until we meet again,
Byron King

August 3, 2009

The Daily Reckoning