Natural gas operators are prioritizing work on existing infrastructure in lieu of drilling new wells, even as demand continues to grow. A recent report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration shows that the number of drilled-but-uncompleted (DUC) wells has fallen to new lows post-COVID.
The EIA began tracking DUC well counts across the seven major American shale and tight oil basins in 2013. From 2013 to 2020, the number of DUCs nearly doubled, rising to a peak of more than 8,800 wells in the second quarter of 2020. There are many reasons why natural gas companies may drill, but not finish, or conduct hydraulic fracturing, at a well to release trapped gas in rock formations. The peak in 2020 can be explained, generally, by labor and energy market shocks as a result of the pandemic. Low demand for natural gas and workforce struggles forced drillers to refocus on mitigating the negative economic effects of the pandemic and put off any new capital expenditures like finishing new well projects.
Now, post-COVID market realities have drillers going back to their DUCs. Data from the EIA shows the number of DUCs fell dramatically in each region from peak counts in the second half of 2020. From June 2020 through all of 2021, overall DUC well counts fell by an average of 227 per month, continuing into 2022 at an average decrease of 82 wells per month. The most recent metrics indicate that DUC well counts have fallen to an all-time low. In August of this year, there was an estimated total of 4,283 DUC wells across the country, 142 wells less than 2013’s previous record low.
Gas production numbers have increased with global demand in 2022. Operators are utilizing their cache of DUC wells to meet this demand. According to the EIA, a combination of “continued market uncertainty and limited access to new investment capital” are the principal factors leading operators to opt for completing existing wells instead of spending the money needed to drill new wells.
DUC well counts are expected to continue to fall for the same reasons. As DUC well counts decrease, producers will need to increase capital investments to drill new wells to maintain their inventories. However, a recent Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) report says that drillers are “reluctant to ramp up drilling,” citing a Federal Bank of Dallas survey in which oil and gas executives listed “fear of upsetting investors” as the a primary factor for their hesitation.
IEEFA believes that drilling is not likely ramped up significantly. “The industry has entered a phase of slowing growth where it can no longer offer a response commensurate with a surging price signal. Ultimately, the realization that future recoveries across the industry happen at a more gradual pace (like what we are seeing today) also acts a governor to valuations across the industry,” the report states.