For the rest of 2016, Moors expects WTI crude oil to trade in a range of around $40 per barrel minimum and rise to a range of $60 per barrel in 2017.
Despite that forecast, the markets have seen near-term fluctuations. In late July, markets reacted to a drop in oil prices. WTI crude oil price fell to $42.41 per barrel, the lowest price since mid-April, when it closed at $39.78. Futures dropped 12.2%. The Brent crude price per barrel was down 11% in late July.
Why such a relatively steep decline? Some analysts are concerned about rising supplies of oil in the United States. You see, the Baker Hughes (NYSE: BHI) oil rig count has been climbing. During July, BHI reported that active rigs were increasing for the four straight weeks.
A rise in rig count during 2015 led to a drop in crude oil prices of 50%. Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS) estimates that supply outside of the OPEC producers will climb this year – and that crude prices per barrel will bottom at $35 in 2016.
Moors cautions that the pullback in oil prices is a normal market fluctuation, and oil won’t fall as low as Morgan Stanley predicts.
He cites three reason that support his $50 per barrel price range this year – and a rise to a $60 range for WTI per barrel in 2017.
The first bullish factor for oil prices is peaking worldwide output.
In the early part of the year, output by OPEC hit more than 32 million barrels daily, its highest level in nearly two decades. Output in Russia reached nearly 11 million barrels, the highest level in three decades.
Moors observes that production in the U.S. from shale is reaching a high as well. You see, tight oil wells and shale oil wells pump the majority of their production within the first year and a half.
According to Moors, production of oil by shale drilling, though, becomes expensive. As a result, oil companies are moving to a type of well dubbed “drilled but uncompleted” (DUC). As the term implies, a DUC hasn’t reached its output peak. They still have oil, so oil companies are going back to them.
Why? They are more affordable than other methods of obtaining oil.
DUCs are slowly being used to supplant shale as an oil supply source. The oil companies don’t want more supply flooding the market.
As Moors puts it, “an increase in DUCs doesn’t mean we are approaching some major boost in production. But they also represent another element restraining the slide in prices.”
The second factor supporting a bullish oil price forecast is falling supply due to the financial situation at oil companies. They can’t afford to keep wells working when their product commands just $46 per barrel at the market.
Over the past two years, supply has been on a steady downward march – which Moors estimates will not reverse soon. According to the BHI rig count, active U.S. oil rigs totaled 337 in late June. At its peak two years ago? Rigs totaled approximately 1,600. That’s a whopping decline of nearly 79%.
Because oil rigs can cost between $500,000 to $3 million to operate and maintain, it is not cost-effective to keep them going until crude oil starts to hit $65 per barrel. Production may ramp up when it hits that level. Most companies need WTI crude to be close to $70 per barrel before they hit reasonable profitability.
So, the BHI rig count shows that the oil companies are shutting down more and more oil rigs. Essentially, we will see a dropping count until supply is constrained enough to drive prices higher.