As one energy prognosticator sees it, natural gas production across the entire United States has "clearly" bottomed out and is once again ramping up, driven by two things: a slowdown in shallow field declines in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) and growth in several key unconventional resource plays.

Stephen Smith Energy Associates, which charts oil and gas price and production movements worldwide, is forecasting a 2% increase in U.S. gas production this year. The firm based the gas production forecast on Department of Energy (DOE) monthly dry gas production for the United States, including Alaska, through May.

Using the DOE dry gas production data through mid-August and taking into account the rise in output from the shallow GOM and unconventional fields onshore, Smith's analysts estimated that U.S. output will be 53 Bcf/d by the end of 2007.

A big reason for the expected gain is Texas, which has seen "substantial" year-over-year growth in the Barnett Shale and in East Texas, said Smith.

Another surprising -- or not so surprising -- gain is coming from the GOM.

"Since 2001, GOM production has recorded a steady record of year-over-year declines. The noticeable year-over-year gain is the result of comparing with missing [hurricanes] Rita/Katrina production the year before," Smith noted. However, "in the last few months, the pace of decline has slowed. With the ramping up of production from the Independence Hub, we expect to see year-over-year increases from August 2007 through year-end."

When it is fully ramped up, the gas hub is expected to bring 1 Bcf/d ashore from several satellite deepwater fields. "Next year benefits from the 'full-year' effect for the Independence Hub," Smith wrote.

Stripping out the 2005 storm-related declines and the subsequent recoveries, Louisiana's gas output "roughly held even" between 2003 and 2006. However, the firm noted that "some new slippage is evident" in the first few months of this year.

Other regions that the firm sees contributing to the gas growth include Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. Oklahoma's production also has been "routinely edging up for the last three years," in part because this is gas leader Chesapeake Energy Corp.'s "home territory -- one factor among several which has led to high rig counts."

New Mexico's gas output has been steadily losing ground for about two years, "a distinctly different pattern than seen in Texas because of the absence, thus far, of the high-growth resource plays which drive the Texas growth."

Because of the current gas storage glut, Smith's analysts are maintaining their cautious stance relative to gas-oriented exploration and production companies. "We would recommend, for appropriate investors, under-weighting gas-oriented E&P shares now."

The "summer heat catalyst" is gone "but it is not too late for hurricane-driven supply disruptions. We don't like the investment odds of depending on hurricane disruptions."

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