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2015-01-17 21:40:00



The number of rigs drilling for oil in the US dropped sharply this week as plunging crude prices hit development of shale reserves, the most-watched survey of industry activity has shown.

There were 1,366 rigs drilling wells primarily for oil in the US, the lowest number since October 2013, according to Baker Hughes , the oilfield services company that compiles a weekly count.

The number of oil-directed rigs has now fallen 15 per cent from its recent peak of 1,609 in October last year.

The figures show a broad-based decline in activity in all the areas that have led the US shale oil boom, reinforcing expectations that US crude production growth will slow sharply this year, or even go into reverse.

Standard & Poor's on Friday downgraded the ratings of eight smaller US exploration and production companies, including Swift Energy , Magnum Hunter Resources and Energy XXI . The credit rating agency also put nine more companies on a negative outlook for possible future downgrades, including Whiting Petroleum , Denbury Resources , Halcon Resources and SandRidge Energy .

The US Energy Information Administration this week forecast a decline of about 3 per cent in US crude production between May and September of this year, but it said it still expected average production for the year to rise this year and next.

However, those growth rates are slower than it had previously predicted, and other forecasters including the International Energy Agency, the wealthy nations' watchdog, and Opec, the producing countries' cartel, have also said they expect a slowdown in US production growth.

Many North American oil exploration and production companies are cutting capital spending sharply, both to conserve cash as revenues tumble, and because they believe that if they hold off drilling now they will be able to produce the oil more profitably when prices recover.

Continental Resources , a pioneer of US shale oil production, said it planned to run 31 rigs on average this year, down from 50 at the end of last year.

The total number of oil rigs working in the Williston basin, which includes the Bakken shale of North Dakota, has dropped by 34, or 17 per cent, since October, while the number in the Eagle Ford shale of south Texas has dropped by 32, or 16 per cent. The number in the Permian basin of west Texas is down 81 rigs, or 14 per cent.

The decline appears to be accelerating: the North American oil rig count has dropped by 170 in the past four weeks, compared to a decline of 38 in the preceding four weeks.

The Baker Hughes data helped push US benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude $1.83 higher to $48.04. The international marker, Brent, rose $1.57 to $49.84.

Opec's November decision to maintain output at 30m barrels a day — rather than cut production to shore up prices in the short term — has been intended to slow growth in US shale production and output from other high-cost producers in an attempt to retain market share.

Paal Kibsgaard, chief executive of Schlumberger , the oil services group, said on a call with analysts on Friday that he expected lower activity in North America, with low oil prices testing the resilience of producers in terms of "their ability to get financing, their ability to continue to drive cost efficiency and reduce cost per barrel, and also their ability to maintain production at current levels."

He was speaking after Schlumberger on Thursday announced $1.77bn in writedowns in its fourth-quarter results and said it planned to cut 9,000 jobs in response to the fall in oil prices.




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