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ND’s Helms Sees Bakken Prices Bottoming, Rigs Still Declining

Production soared in December in the Bakken Shale as prices and rig counts crumbled, but there are indications that the price bottom may have been reached in the first weeks of 2015, according to North Dakota's chief oil/natural gas regulator, Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources.

Prices for Bakken sweet crude plummeted to $31.41/bbl in January before rising this month to a current $34.50/bbl level on Friday, said Helms, adding that the current price has not been this low since February 2009. Prices have been cut in half just since November when they were at the $60/bbl level.

Similarly, Helms said the current rig count is 137 and could drop to the low 120s before it bottoms out. There were 188 rigs operating in November and 160 in January, he said.

Nevertheless, oil and gas production hit all-time high levels in December: 38 million bbl (1.22 million b/d), compared to 35.6 million bbl (1.18 million b/d) in November, and 46.7 Bcf (1.5 Bcf/d) of gas production in December, compared to 42.9 Bcf (1.43 Bcf/d) in November.

"I think December was what I call a 'tug-of-war' month with a very high number of wells completed 173 [preliminary] compared to 48 wells in December," said Helms, adding that there is still a huge backlog of 750 wells awaiting completion. "At the same time we saw rig counts and prices dropping very rapidly."

He attributed the December burst to producers trying to spend their full 2014 annual budgets and to meet yearly production target numbers. "There was a surge in completing wells and bringing them on at year-end to hit those production targets that producers promised their stockholders and venture capital backers," Helms said.

"We're still seeing downward pressures on rig counts even though oil prices have begun to recover. As we head into spring, I think we will see the recovery continue. Oil prices appear to have bottomed out, just as the Saudi oil minister had predicted at a $50/bbl world oil price, and it has been recovering ever since the first of February and headed for the $60 level and the $70/bbl level by year-end [predicted by the Saudis]."

In response to a question during his monthly production report webinar, Helms said there is no indication of a corresponding pullback in infrastructure projects as a result of the commodity price and rig count drops. "I got phone calls from two midstream operators on the oil side in the last week and some feedback at meetings in late December, and they are not reducing their capital budgets for gathering and midstream processing at all," said Helms, citing Hess Corp. as an example.

"Hess has reduced its capital spending from $2.2 billion to $1.8 billion all on the drilling side. They are still going to spend as much as they had planned on the midstream processing side. This will be a great opportunity to catch up on the midstream side."

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