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U.S. Shale Industry Accelerates As Oil Prices Rise

The number of drilled but uncompleted wells (DUCs) that accumulated at the height of the pandemic has already subsided to pre-Covid-19 levels in the US, a Rystad Energy analysis shows. After swelling to a multi-year high of 6,548 wells in June 2020, the number of such wells in the country’s major oil regions* slimmed down to around 5,700 wells by the end of December 2020.

The inventory of ‘live’ DUCs, which excludes tentatively abandoned wells drilled a long time ago, also declined by around 800 wells in the same period, from 4,353 in June to 3,528 in December. The current level of horizontal oil ‘live’ DUC count is comparable to the level seen in early 2020, just before the market downturn started.

“Given the recent recovery in oil prices, the industry is enjoying the flexibility of further accelerating fracking activity beyond current levels in the first half of the year. Such an acceleration could be delivered, as can be implied from the ratio of the current ‘live’ DUC inventory to the run rate of fracking, which is still in the six-to-eight-month range, compared to the normal level of about three months seen in 2018-2019,” says Artem Abramov, Head of Shale Research at Rystad Energy.

As of 21 January 2021, we identified 626 started frac operations in North America for December 2020 and we expect the month’s fact-based coverage to be almost complete. For January 2021, we project that there will be 830 wells fracked, the highest monthly total after March 2020, when the Covid-19 induced downturn began.

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Back to DUCs, nearly all major oil regions followed the national trend in 2020, first exhibiting an unusual inventory build-up in the second quarter and then moving toward a gradual depletion in the second half of the year. The Permian Basin accounted for around 55% of the total horizontal ‘live’ oil DUC inventory as of December 2020, at around 1,900, and it accounted for a comparable share of the drawdown through the second half of the year, as the basin’s ‘live’ DUCs peaked at 2,400 wells in June 2020.

The magnitude of the anomaly in the inventory, accumulated through the second quarter, is now shrinking gradually, but it remains significant. Looking at the breakdown of the total DUC inventory by vintage, or the spud year, one can easily spot thick tails, or a slow depletion of 2019 and 2020 vintages. In particular, a significant number of wells spudded in the fourth quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020 were subject to delayed completions, and many of them were still part of the inventory as of December 2020.

If we look at the 4Q19-1Q20 spud vintages combined, then, as of December 2020, 1,633 wells were still in inventory, with a 48% depletion from the level of 3,246 wells seen in April 2020. The eight-month depletion pace in the three previous years was normally observed in the 80-83% range. This implies that, as of today, there are still around 1,100 horizontal oil DUCs that would have been completed by now in a normal activity environment.

If a fracking increase materializes, DUC wells from 4Q19-1Q20 will be completed faster, but it will also require the industry to increase rig counts quicker to achieve a smoother transition from a DUC-driven activity phase to a normal operational mode. In other words, this scenario is possible, but it will require an increase in the reinvestment rates from what operators have currently budgeted for 2021.

Given the current environment of capital discipline and focus on free cash flow generation, we expect the industry to largely stick with its original fracking programs in the first half of the year, but probably allocate some additional capex to a more significant increase in the rig count. This will result in an upside in frac activity from the second half of the year, and certain deviations from the maintenance program will be visible toward the end of the year, assuming that WTI holds above the $50 per barrel mark.

By Rystad Energy

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