By LYNN COOK and ERIN AILWORTH WSJ
Dec. 10, 2014 7:15 p.m. ET
U.S. energy companies are starting to cut drilling, lay off workers and slash spending in the face of an accelerating decline in oil prices, which fell to a fresh five-year low Wednesday.
The number of rigs drilling for oil in North Dakota and parts of Texas has started to edge down, new drilling permits have dropped sharply since October, and many companies say they are going to focus on their most profitable wells.
EOG Resources Inc. this week said it would shed many of its Canadian oil and gas fields, close its Calgary office and lay off employees there as it refocuses in the U.S. Matador Resources Co. of Dallas is contemplating temporarily leaving the prolific Eagle Ford Shale area in South Texas in favor of drilling elsewhere in Texas and New Mexico where it can make more money.
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Investors sold off shares of energy companies including EOG as the U.S. benchmark oil price fell to $60.94 on Wednesday. EOG lost nearly 3% to $86.79 while shale specialists Continental Resources Inc. and Chesapeake Energy Corp. both declined about 7%. Many of these U.S. independent drillers have lost half their value since June.
Shares of global energy giants have fared better than the independent U.S. companies because their refining operations are benefiting from cheaper oil. But some of the biggest are disclosing cutbacks.
BP PLC, which has been cutting back since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, outlined a further $1 billion restructuring on Wednesday. ConocoPhillips , one of the biggest shale producers in the U.S., recently said it would spend 20% less next year on drilling wells, honing in on its sweetest spots instead of drilling its more expensive areas like Colorado’s Niobrara.
“At this point a contraction is unavoidable,” said Karr Ingham, economist for the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.
One reason for the stock declines is investors are skeptical: Whatever their plans, U.S. companies produced 9.1 million barrels a day last week, the highest level since 1983, according to federal data. There is so much oil sloshing around the U.S. that refiners can’t use it all, so 1.5 million barrels of crude went into U.S. oil stockpiles last week.
Some companies will be able to keep pumping even at lower prices, depending on the location and quality of their wells. Enterprise Products Partners LP, which operates pipelines and oil storage terminals across the U.S., said its analysis shows that the average well in many shale formations aren’t profitable at $60 oil. But wells considered high grade can withstand much lower prices. For instance, some wells in South Texas are profitable at prices of $30 a barrel, while the best in North Dakota’s Bakken area can only withstand a drop to under $50 a barrel.
Energy companies’ hedging strategies run the gamut from Continental Resources, which cancelled nearly all its price hedges and projected oil prices would soon rise, to Pioneer Natural Resources Co. of Irving, Texas, which has hedged 85% of its oil and gas output for 2015. Companies that hedged their production aren’t as exposed to falling prices and may not have to pump less or curb spending as quickly.
Surging American oil output has helped create a global glut of oil that has sent prices spiraling downward. The benchmark U.S. oil price, which briefly rose above $107 a barrel in late June, closed below $61 a barrel Wednesday, down 43% since its summer high.
Drilling permits issued in the U.S. dropped 36% between October and November, according to data from Drillinginfo, but remain 13% above their year earlier level.
Another sign of the energy industry’s pullback: the number of rigs drilling for oil in the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas has started to drop. Drilling in the nation’s second most active oil region hit a peak of 210 rigs in July but recently fell to 190 rigs.
These declines don’t necessarily mean that U.S. oil output will fall, said Greg Haas, a director at research firm Stratas Advisors in Houston, because companies are getting more efficient at drilling. “It used to be if the rig count dropped then oil production dropped, but not anymore,” he said.
In a sense, energy companies are a victim of their own success. EOG, Chesapeake and others learned to drill and frack wells faster and wring more from each well. Chesapeake says its initial production at new wells in the Eagle Ford improved by 65% over the last five years.
Houston-based EOG took 22 days to drill a well in South Texas in 2011; today it takes less than nine days. The company recently said it can earn a 10% profit after taxes even if oil prices were to fall to $40 a barrel.
However, companies with a lot of debt, low rates of return and little chance of drilling their way to better profitability will be hurt if crude remains below $75 a barrel, according to analysts at Global Hunter Securities.
Among the companies they cited was Triangle Petroleum Corp. Jon Samuels, president of the Denver-based independent explorer, said his company is profitable at the current price of oil.
Triangle’s shares are down 47% in the last two months. It is pushing vendors for cheaper prices for drilling equipment and contract labor in the new year, which should help bring down costs, he said.
“You’re going to see activity levels and spending go down substantially compared to this year,” Mr. Samuels said, adding that the stock market reaction to crude’s price drop has been overblown.
Write to Lynn Cook at email@example.com and Erin Ailworth at Erin.Ailworth@wsj.com