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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Natural Gas Prices Rise to Highest Levels in Over Two Years

Natural Gas Prices Rise to Highest Levels in Over Two Years

December 2013 saw the highest spot price for natural gas in over two years, as a cold weather returns to many parts of the East and Midwest. Weekly data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) showed that Henry Hub prices hit $4.44 per million Btu (MMBtu) in mid-December, the highest level since July 2011.

The “Shale Gas Revolution” over the last few years has led to rock-bottom prices as a record amount of volume has come online. Prices dropped precipitously from their double-digit highs in 2008. Yet, the low prices of 2012 were likely unsustainable – the December 2013 price of $4.44/MMBtu was more than twice as high as the price in the spring of 2012, which dropped below $2/MMBtu. At those levels, many wells became unprofitable to drill, and producers shifted their focus from dry natural gas to wet gas and increasingly into unconventional oil production. In other words, with prices so low, the frenzied pace of drilling had to slow down. That trend is reflected in EIA data, which shows a steady drop in rig counts since the summer of 2011 – the last time prices were as high as they are now.

To be sure, horizontal drilling is much more productive than vertical drilling on a per-well basis, so declining rig counts do not mean production would drop accordingly. And it hasn’t – natural gas production has remained flat for almost two years. As horizontal drilling has replaced vertical drilling as the norm, fewer rigs were needed to produce the same amount of gas. This explains some of the drop in rig counts over the last two years. On top of that, the EIA concluded in an October report that over the last year or so, drillers have made further efficiency gains, squeezing out even more gas and oil per new well than before.

Higher productivity reduces the need to throw more rigs at the problem, but even so, prices were unsustainably low throughout much of the last few years. Many producers wouldn’t have been able to breakeven at the 2012 prices of $2/MMBtu. While breakeven prices depend on a whole host of variables – geology, presence of natural gas liquids, proprietary drilling costs – one estimate from Rice University’s Baker Institute Center for Energy Studies puts the median breakeven price at $4.85/MMBtu. Low prices made some wells uneconomical, but with the latest spot prices heading back up, a lot more drillers will now find it profitable to return to drilling.

On the other hand, prices may be going up, but the industry also faces significant obstacles. Thousands of wells have already been drilled and the most productive wells were drilled first. The next round of wells may not be as productive. Perhaps more importantly, the proliferation of drilling has bumped up against local resistance in many places. Voters in the cities of Fort Collins and Lafayette in Colorado recently passed bans on fracking. And on December 20, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court shot down a state law that prevented local zoning authorities from restricting hydraulic fracturing. The decision injected a lot of uncertainty about the trajectory of the industry in Pennsylvania, as many cities and towns may try to pass local fracking bans.

How all of this shakes out is unclear, but the latest run up in prices will likely push natural gas companies towards more drilling.

By. Nicholas Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • cas127 on December 26 2013 said:
    "and the most productive wells were drilled first."

    Correction - what were/are *thought* to be the most productive wells were/are drilled first.

    There is no way to *know* this for sure - at best, it is a probabilistic exercise.

    Second - banning drilling/fracking in *cities* is not the same as banning it in *counties* - and there is a lot more land area in a county than a given city.

    Don't want a rig within a mile of your house in the city?

    Fine, I'll put it three miles away in county farm land and drill horizontally.

    It is the rare basin that requires anyone to have pinpoint accuracy.

    Nice to have but not absolutely indispensable.
  • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. (Ret.) on December 29 2013 said:
    Our nation's boom - bust energy cycle continues. Technological advances, greed, fear, and regulatory uncertainties cripple long term stability; they overwhelm the incremental puts and calls of stable commerce. The impact is greatest in long term commitments. They pose a great risk to devoting lengthy and expensive investments. Most think of investing in drilling rigs, or international pipe lines.

    I think of engineering careers. What would you recommend to a bright teen, interested in maybe an engineering career. Nuclear power? Fracking? Wind generators? Geothermal? Cellulosic ethanol? Since most employees derive ~ 100% of their family's income from a pay check and engineering focused coursework is not diversified, there is an enormous risk that they will laid off, maybe bankrupt in mid career, due to economics totally beyond their control. Everything depends on $/MBTUs, and political power.

    Energy engineering is an extremely high risk boom bust career.

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