Guest post by David Archibald
It would be churlish to not share Ric Werne’s joy over a lower gas bill. That said, I believe his post “Cheap Natural Gas, but wait – there’s more” is misleading. Let’s see what the charts say. First of all, the natural gas price itself:
Figure 1: Energy Information Administration (EIA) Henry Hub Spot Prices
The natural gas price bottomed in April this year at just under $2.00/MMBtu and is now $3.40/MMBtu. That is an increase of 70% from the low. More is needed because the average price to give a 10% rate of return in $4.50/MCF (1 MMBtu is very close to 1 MCF) as shown in Figure 2.
Most of potential US shale gas production is uneconomic at the current price. So why are shale gas wells still being drilled? A lot of acreage is “held by production” in which a well on the lease has to be brought into production in a certain period or otherwise it goes back to the mineral lease owner. The number of rigs drilling for gas is now down to one third of what it was at the peak four years ago.
Figure 3: US Rig Count 1987 – 2012
There were about 700 drilling rigs operating in the US a decade ago. That has almost tripled with most of the rigs looking for oil. So with the number of rigs drilling for gas continuing to drop, that will eventually be reflected in natural gas production. How that works is illustrated by Figure 4.
Figure 4: Steepening Decline Curves in Natural Gas Production
Back in 2000, the wells in production had a 23% decline over the following year. Now the decline rate is 32%. The treadmill has speeded up. To get a longer term perspective, let’s go back to the gas price.
Figure 5: US Natural Gas Price 1987 – 2012
Traditionally, the US natural gas price traded in line with the No 2 Fuel Oil price in energy equivalent terms, so the gas price tracked along with the oil price. If that still held true and with a barrel of oil being equivalent to 6,000 cubic feet of gas, the current oil price of $89.92/bbl would equate to $15/MCF. As shown in Figure 5, as the oil price started rising last decade, the gas price rose along with it until the “Shale Gale” hit. The relationship between gas production, gas price and rig count is shown in the Figure 6.
Figure 6: US Natural Gas Production, Gas Price and Rig Count 1987 – 2012
Rig count and gas price are closely coupled. There is a considerable lag from drilling to production. Drilling activity started rising in 2000 but production declined to 2005. Conventional gas production has continued to decline and the rise in production over the last six years has been due to shale gas.
Figure 7: Rig Count versus Gas Price 2005 – 2012
If we plot gas price relative to rig count, there is a strong correlation. All this is telling us is that higher gas prices draw in more rigs. It is a lagging indicator, like carbon dioxide in climate. High gas prices are the seed of their own destruction.
Figure 8: Production and Gas Price 2005 – 2012
Figure 8 has some predictive ability. For gas prices to rise to the price at which US shale gas on average is economic, production has to fall to about 1,700 billion cubic feet per month from the current level of about 2,000 billion cubic feet per month.
I expect prices and production to seesaw until an equilibrium is reached. Excluding the effect of liquids content, the US shale gas industry will be characterised by profitless prosperity – the majority of players will eventually get a 10%-odd rate of return on being in the business.