Drilling_Roughnecks_(8744524276)There has been a tremendous amount of commentary and analysis recently about the dramatic increase in oil and gas activity and production in the Permian Basin, the SCOOP/STACK plays in Oklahoma and even the Eagle Ford Basin.  There has been much less written about how the “recovery” has impacted oil and gas activity in the Williston Basin in North Dakota.

Last Friday, the North Dakota Industrial Commission Department of Mineral Resources released its “Director’s Cut” which contains some interesting facts as well mixed signals.

Oil production rose in March to nearly 32 million barrels (though the number of barrels per day actually decreased slightly from February).  It is interesting to note that the all-time high of barrels per day was 1,227,483 hit in December 2014, while in March 2017 the state only produced 1,025,638 barrels per day, or about 16% less than the high mark.

The number of producing wells increased in March to 13,632, which would be an all-time high.  Concurrently, the estimated number of wells waiting on completions (ducs) dropped by 110 from the end of February to 689, and the inactive well count (both inactive and abandoned) dropped by 312 from February to 1,299.

Contrast these numbers with the statistics on permitting, rig count and prices.  Permitting in 2017 spiked in March to 93, following 45 in February, but dropped to only 58 in April.  The all-time high for permits was a whopping 370 in October 2012.  The rig count has climbed from 39 in February to 46 in March, 50 in April and 51 today.  Those 51 running rigs are a far cry from the 218 running in May of 2012.  North Dakota sweet crude prices saw a small spike in April but as of Friday sit at about $38.50 a barrel, down from $42.74 in February (the record high of $136.78 in July 2008 is but a distant memory).

What do these statistics and  director Helms’ commentary tell us?  To start with,  it is clear that operators in North Dakota continue to get better at producing more oil with fewer rigs.  At the same time, the Director notes that a number of external factors, including “capital movement to the Permian basin,” continued to limit drilling rig counts.  Utilization rates for both deep and shallow rigs were minimal, sitting at 25-30% and 15-20%, respectively.

The oil price recovery is helping North Dakota, but not nearly to the extent it is helping operators in Texas and Oklahoma.  If prices could maintain over $50 a barrel (WTI), we would expect the recovery to “spread” north over the next few months.  If not, we may continue to envy our colleagues in Texas and see even more capital deployed far south of the oil fields of the northern Rockies.