The History and Analysis of Crude Oil Prices - Part V “The Impact of Crude Oil Prices on Industry Segments”
Crude Oil Drilling and Exploration Boom and Bust
The Rotary Rig Count is the average number of drilling rigs actively exploring for oil and gas. Drilling an oil or gas well is a capital investment in the expectation of returns from the production and sale of crude oil or natural gas. Rig count is one of the primary measures of the health of the exploration segment of the oil and gas industry. In a very real sense it is a measure of the oil and gas industry’s confidence in its own future.
At the end of the Arab Oil Embargo in 1974 rig count was below 1500. It rose steadily with regulated crude oil prices to over 2000 in 1979. From 1978 to the beginning of 1981 domestic crude oil prices exploded from a combination of the the rapid growth in world energy prices and deregulation of domestic prices. At that time high prices and forecasts of crude oil prices in excess of $100 per barrel fueled a drilling frenzy. By 1982 the number of rotary rigs running had more than doubled.
It is important to note that the peak in drilling occurred over a year after oil prices had entered a steep decline which continued until the 1986 price collapse. The one year lag between crude prices and rig count disappeared in the 1986 price collapse. For the next few years the economy of the towns and cities in the oil patch was characterized by bankruptcy, bank failures and high unemployment.
After the Collapse
Several trends established were established in the wake of the collapse in crude prices. The lag of over a year for drilling to respond to crude prices is now reduced to a matter of months. (Note that the graph on the right is limited to rigs involved in exploration for crude oil as compared to the previous graph which also included rigs involved in gas exploration.) Like any other industry that goes through hard times the oil business emerged smarter, leaner and more conservative. Industry participants, bankers and investors were far more aware of the risk of price movements. Companies long familiar with accessing geologic, production and management risk added price risk to their decision criteria.
Technological improvements were incorporated:
- Increased use of 3-D seismic data reduced drilling risk.
- Directional and horizontal drilling led to improved production in many reservoirs.
- Financial instruments were used to limit exposure to price movements.
- Increased use of CO2 floods and improved recovery methods to improve production in existing wells.
In spite of all of these efforts the percentage of rigs employed in drilling for crude oil decreased from over 60 percent of total rigs at the beginning of 1988 to under 15 percent until a recent resurgence.
Well Completions - A measure of success?
Rig count does not tell the whole story of oil and gas exploration and development. It is certainly a good measure of activity, but it is not a measure of success.
After a well is drilled it is either classified as an oil well, natural gas well or dry hole. The percentage of wells completed as oil or gas wells is frequently used as a measure of success. In fact, this percentage is often referred to as the success rate.
Immediately after World War II 65 percent of the wells drilled were completed as oil or gas wells. This percentage declined to about 57 percent by the end of the 1960s. It rose steadily during the 1970s to reach 70 percent at the end of that decade. This was followed by a plateau or modest decline through most of the 1980s.
Beginning in 1990 shortly after the harsh lessons of the price collapse completion rates increased dramatically to 77 percent. What was the reason for the dramatic increase? For that matter, what was the cause of the steady drop in the 1950s and 1960s or the reversal in the 1970s?
Since the percentage completion rates are much lower for the more risky exploratory wells, a shift in emphasis away from development would result in lower overall completion rates. This, however, was not the case. An examination of completion rates for development and exploratory wells shows the same general pattern. The decline was price related as we will explain later.
Some would argue that the periods of decline were a result of the fact that every year there is less oil to find. If the industry does not develop better technology and expertise every year, oil and gas completion rates should decline. However, this does will not explain the periods of increase.
The increases of the seventies were more related to price than technology. When a well is drilled, the fact that oil or gas is found does not mean that the well will be completed as a producing well. The determining factor is economics. If the well can produce enough oil or gas to cover the additional cost of completion and the ongoing production costs it will be put into production. Otherwise, its a dry hole even if crude oil or natural gas is found. The conclusion is that if real prices are increasing we can expect a higher percentage of successful wells. Conversely if prices are declining the opposite is true.
The increases of the 1990s, however, cannot be explained by higher prices.
These increases are the result of improved technology and the shift to a higher percentage of natural gas drilling activity. The increased use of and improvements to 3-D seismic data and analysis combined with horizontal and and directional drilling improve prospects for successful completions. The fact that natural gas is easier to see in the seismic data adds to that success rate.
Most dramatic is the improvement in the the percentage exploratory wells completed. In the 1990s completion rates for exploratory wells have soared from 25 to 45 percent.
Workover Rigs - Maintenance
Workover rig count is a measure of the industry’s investment in the maintenance of oil and gas wells. The Baker-Hughes workover rig count includes rigs involved in pulling production tubing, sucker rods and pumps from a well that is 1,500 feet or more in depth.
Workover rig count is another measure of the health of the oil and gas industry. A disproportionate percentage of workovers are associated with oil wells. Workover rigs are used to pull tubing for repair or replacement of rods, pumps and tubular goods which are subject to wear and corrosion.
A low level of workover activity is particularly worrisome because it is indicative of deferred maintenance. The situation is similar to the aging apartment building that no longer justifies major renovations and is milked as long as it produces a positive cash flow. When operators are in a weak cash position workovers are delayed as long as possible. Workover activity impacts manufacturers of tubing, rods and pumps. Service companies coating pipe and other tubular goods are heavily affected.
Part I - The History and Analysis of Crude Oil Prices
Part II - The History and Analysis of Crude Oil Prices
Part III - The History and Analysis of Crude Oil Prices
Part IV - The History and Analysis of Crude Oil Prices
Part V - The History and Analysis of Crude Oil Prices
Sources for this series include:
Oil & Gas Journal