The cylinder sections in the graph above represent a range of, plus-to-minus one, standard deviation surrounding the average annual natural gas prices for the corresponding years. Trading patterns over the last three years indicate that the price volatility of natural gas has diminished significantly. Specifically, the range has narrowed from $4.28 in 2008 to just $0.58 at present.
If the cylinders were to be placed concentrically side by side, the resulting effect would be a funnel. Proceeding from the wide-end of the funnel to present day prices, it appears that natural gas has reached a period of price stability.
While much has been written about oversupply issues, the normal corrective mechanisms (i.e. participants leaving) appear to be taking root in the natural gas markets. Specifically, since October 2010, the US land gas rig count has fallen from 950 to 856 rigs, a 10% decline. Taking the conservative assumption that each rig could drill 10 wells per year implies that 940 (10 wells x 94 rigs) fewer natural gas wells will be drilled over the next twelve months.
Given the dramatic decline curves associated with shale gas, such as the depleting 70% during the first year in the Marcellus; the downward trend in rig count implies that future reserve replacement will not likely keep pace with existing production. Such a scenario points to a rebalancing of supply and demand in the U.S.
The discipline we are seeing with regards to a lower natural gas rig count is not occurring in a vacuum. These rigs that were drilling for natural gas are now drilling for oil. In fact, the US land oil rig count has increased by 153 rigs over the same time frame (i.e. from last October until now). E&P firms have made it clear that the incremental return per unit of $11, favoring oil, is a strong incentive to continue shifting resources. Thus, additional drilling to reinvigorate gas production will not resume quickly once prices begin to improve because the equipment will likely not be available.
With prices stabilizing and production normalizing, we can now envision a point in the future months where price improvement rather than price destruction can be seen as the ensuing trend. Other factors that are starting to play to the natural gas market's hand are strengthening industrial demand and a trend towards more electricity generation using natural gas as the fuel. Given the recent nuclear crisis in Japan, the backlash on nuclear energy will only make burning natural gas even more desirable.
So, even with the +7% recent surge in natural gas prices last week, we still see reasons to get more bullish on the commodity in the near future.
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