Both oil and natural gas drilling activity slid in the first quarter from the same period a year ago, but the American Petroleum Institute (API) said Friday it expects to see an improvement in the second quarter.

Oil and natural gas wells and dry holes completed in the first quarter totaled 7,663, which was 24% below a year ago, temporarily halting an uptick in the completion well activity that began in the second half of 2009, the producer group said in its quarterly well completion reported issued Friday.

“This drop in drilling activity was somewhat unexpected. Looking at the rig activity, we expected first-quarter completions to at least maintain their fourth-quarter 2009 level,” said Hazem Arafa, director of API’s statistics department. “Upon closer inspection, we noticed that a considerable uptick in permits and rig activity occurred closer to the end of the first quarter. We therefore expect this increased activity to result in an uptick in completions in the second quarter.”

Continuing a trend that began in mid-2009, more oil wells than natural gas wells were completed in the first quarter of the year, but well completions for both were down from a year ago, with the steepest drop seen in natural gas, the API said.

The API reported 3,654 oil wells and 3,216 gas wells were completed in the first quarter. The number of first-quarter gas well completions were down 36% from 2009, while oil well completions dipped only 9%. This trend was particularly apparent in the exploratory well completion rate, where first-quarter exploratory oil well completions totaled 240 in both 2009 and 2010, but natural gas exploration completions slipped 27% to 255 well completions in the first quarter, compared with 349 for the same period in 2009, the API report said.

API also reported total estimated footage of 49.93 million feet drilled for the first quarter, a 22% drop from the corresponding quarter of 2009.

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