Art Berman spots distress in the natural gas industry

Michael Giberson

Apparently I’m just a hot-headed, temperamental guy unwilling to sit still and listen to a patient explanation of a contrary point of view. I’ve only read the first paragraph of Art Berman’s new post at the The Oil Drum and already I’m arguing with my computer screen and searching around for data to illustrate my rebuttal.

Here in the first paragraph in question, from a post entitled “After The Gold Rush: A Perspective on Future U.S. Natural Gas Supply and Price”:

On January 23, 2012, Chesapeake Energy announced that it would curtail drilling in shale gas plays in the United States. Subsequently, other operators have followed suit. While the outcome of this announcement is unclear, it is a signal that the industry is in distress. One can argue that this distress stems from a lack of discipline as market price began to decline.

Distressed? Chesapeake Energy is in the oil and gas business. The ratio of oil prices to natural gas prices is at historic highs. Chesapeake announces they are shifting their drilling activities away from natural gas resources and toward oil resources. Since when is responding to incentives a sign of distress?

Jump back six years ago and oil prices (quoted in barrels) were about 6 times the price of natural gas (quoted in million BTU), a ratio that happens to be near the relative energy contents of the two energy resources. Prices of both went up and then down together in 2007 and 2008, oil a little more than gas, but beginning in 2009 oil prices resumed an upward path while gas prices have drifted downward. The current oil-to-gas price ratio is an astounding 40 to 1.

The following EIA chart is from May 2011, but it shows that the oil and gas industry as a whole has been quite reasonably switching from natural gas drilling to oil drilling as the relative price differences began to change. The trends shown have continued over the last several months.

U.S. oil rig count overtakes natural gas rig count (Chart)
U.S. oil rig count overtakes natural gas rig count. Source: EIA (Link to EIA analysis and supporting data.)

If anything, to the extent Chesapeake stayed with natural gas drilling even as the oil-to-gas price ratio was shifting against gas, it signals one of three things: (1) their gas operations were exceptionally profitable, at least relative to their oil opportunities, but now prices have tipped their calculations toward oil, (2) they had contractual obligations that kept them in gas drilling longer than they would have preferred, given the way prices developed, or (3) they irrationally stuck to natural gas drilling well after incentives should have pushed them to oil, but they’ve recently regained their senses. Which of these three options reveal an industry in distress?

The reality is simpler. A few moments searching Google news turns up stories from 2011, 2010, and 2009 in which Chesapeake has said it was shifting from gas to oil drilling. Chesapeake has been slowly shifting from gas to oil drilling over the past few years just like the rest of the industry, perhaps the only change in the most recent announcement is that the company is increasing the pace of its shift.

Okay, later today I’ll have time to read the rest of Berman’s post. Maybe reading the rest of his reasoned analysis will enlighten me, will calm me down a bit.