Why natural gas supply hasn’t fallen off with rig counts

2013.01.24 - Baker Hughes RigsEnlarge Graph

Baker Hughes, an oil services company, reported that rigs targeting natural gas fell from 434 to 429 for the week ending January 18. As seen in the chart below, last week’s figures are a continuation of a longer term trend of less natural gas rigs working. With this sharp drop off in natural gas rigs, one would expect a drastic cutback in natural gas production, and therefore a bump in prices and natural gas producer valuations. However, supply has remained flattish thus far, with prices rebounding somewhat, but mostly from demand drivers rather than supply cutbacks.

To provide some context, there have been a decreasing number of rigs targeting natural gas over the past year due to prices being near historic lows. The below graph shows natural gas prices from January 2005 to the present. Though natural gas prices have rebounded somewhat in recent months off lows of $2.00/MMBtu (or millions of British thermal units), they are nowhere close to the highs of over $10.00/MMBtu reached in the past decade. The extended price depression has caused producers to cut back on natural gas drilling and shift capital from natural gas to oil.

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One would expect that given the drastic cut in natural gas rigs, a proportionate supply cut would follow. However, according to figures from the US Department of Energy, domestic natural gas production hasn’t been trending downwards and is relatively flat if anything. The below chart shows US natural gas production from October 2011 through October 2012, which is coincident with the sharp drop off in natural gas rigs.

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There are a few major likely reasons why natural gas production has not yet followed the drop off in rig counts:

  1. The rigs targeting gas right now are likely targeting the most productive and economic wells, and the rigs that were put out of work were targeting the more marginal wells. This has resulted in a large cut in rigs, without a proportionate cut in supply.
  2. Rigs that are classified as targeting oil are not included in the natural gas rig count, and oil wells produce both oil and natural gas (often called “associated gas” when it comes from an oil well). Oil prices have remained relatively robust, and the pace of oil drilling has remained frenzied, with the by-product being associated natural gas production.
  3. Producers have become more efficient at producing more gas with less rigs due to advancing technology and deeper knowledge about the areas in which they are drilling.

That is not to say that supply cuts will not be experienced at all. Note that in the above graph US natural gas production goes only through October 2012, as that is the last period that the DOE has reported thus far. One has yet to see what the DOE will report for November and December. Additionally, companies plan their expenditures year by year, and it is likely that given the continued low price of natural gas and continued support in the price of oil, that companies will further shift capital away from natural gas and towards oil in their 2013 drilling budgets.

However, thus far the rig reductions have not put a significant dent in natural gas supply. Therefore, natural gas prices have remained relatively low which has muted the margins and valuation of domestic natural gas weighted producers such as Chesapeake Energy (CHK), Comstock Resources (CRK), Southwestern Energy (SWN), and EXCO Resources (XCO). Additionally, natural gas prices affect the US Natural Gas Fund (UNG), an ETF designed to track Henry Hub natural gas prices, the major domestic benchmark for the commodity.