As 2017 gets off to a start, RigUp is sitting down with some of our industry’s most respected experts to share their insight, thoughts, and wisdom as we exit a tumultuous downturn in the commodity markets. Our conversation today with oilfield service veteran Joseph Triepke should provide some insight into how we prepare for the recovery and what to expect in oilfield services this year.
Joseph Triepke is the founder & principal research analyst of InfillThinking.com, an independent oil and gas business research firm. For approximately a decade, Joseph analyzed the oil service and drilling industry for large Wall Street institutions. In 2016, he launched a new industry facing market research firm: Infill Thinking. The firm provides clear updates to oilfield decision makers, exposing new angles on stories and trends that really matter.
Q: After the dust has settled it seems like everyone is ready and anxious for the race back up. The balance seems to be rising service pricing balanced against equipment reactivations and supply reintroductions to the market, what are your thoughts?
A: As far as I’m concerned, your read on the market is spot on. The service space is chomping at the bit, eager to feast after several years of famine. During Q1 2017, we are looking for market share leaders in virtually every segment to push pricing higher. Reactivations are coming, but we may be in a sweet spot for service pricing improvement to start the year as prices are still generally too low to justify large scale reactivations. That could change after a few rounds of re-pricing.
Q: If pricing power returns as you expect, where do you think we start to see the inflection first?
A: Prices will likely first start to inflate across the completions supply chain, starting with pressure pumping. In fact, frac pricing started to inch up during Q4 2016. Double digit increases in frac pricing will be commonplace early this year as calendars are filling up for available spreads. Drilling rig day rates are another area to watch for inflation. The land rig market as a whole remains grossly oversupplied, but the higher end of the market is much tighter than the weekly rig count suggests. For example, super spec rig utilization is tracking above 80% industry wide. Historically this is the utilization level where pricing power returns to contractors.
Q: Since the fall, there’s been a lot of discussion and anxiety over potential future sand constraints (and in some cases, fears that sand constraints could actually limit US supply). From the conversations you’re having with pressure pumping providers and service companies, what’s the outlook on frac sand?
A: At this point, no one we talk with is concerned with frac sand supply in the Lower 48. By that we mean sand is plentiful at the basin level in the biggest plays. Consumption is tracking at about half of 2014 peak levels. We talked to the largest pumper of sand in late December and were told that water supply (while nothing to panic over) is more of a challenge than sand supply. What’s more concerning to us is potential bottlenecks in last mile logistics, meaning proppant delivery from transload facilities to well sites. This is where we see a potential choke point worth monitoring early this year.
Q: Any other gating factors or potential bottlenecks we should be on the lookout for?
A: I’m keeping an eye on labor. The highest quality workers have been or are being called back. The further down the call lists contractors move, the more issues you might have. And you could start to see wage pressure too, starting this quarter in particularly active basins like the Permian. With tens of thousands of workers returning to O&G, we’ll soon start to see just how many of the downturn’s casualties have permanently left the industry.
Q: The theme of “decoupling” services and flattening the multi-level supply chain emerged in the last commodity upcycle and the E&Ps that were early to that theme benefitted in the last downcycle – it also happens to be one of the key value propositions of RigUp – what are your thoughts on this theme as the industry goes back to work in 2017?
A: Taking costs out of the system structurally rather than cyclically is more important than ever. So too is finding structural efficiencies. The Lower 48 D&C activity recovery at oil prices half of prior highs has been impressive. To us, it underscores the critical importance of permanent cost savings. As service pricing reflates, we can’t lose efficiencies or this recovery won’t last long. I think that’s where new solutions like RigUp come into play. The recent downturn catalyzed the adoption of new methods. The coming upturn will institutionalize these new methods.
Q: Everyone is predicting a flood of E&P M&A (led by the strength of Permian Basin takeouts), what are your thoughts on OFS M&A as we head into 2017? Are there more interesting deals that could ensue following the GE/Baker Hughes & CSL/BJ Services announcements late 2016?
A: There’s not as much consensus about a wave of OFS M&A as in E&P because of valuation arguments. But I think deal flow could surprise to the upside this year, due in part by an intense focus on adaptive technology by the leading players, similar to the GE/Baker deal you mentioned. As far as specific deals go, we recently identified four likely OFS buyers in a note to Infill Thinking subscribers.
Q: Given the valuation challenges, how do you see these deals getting done?
A: Look for companies to use their equity as valuation equalizing currency similar to what Patterson-UTI did in the Seventy-Seven Energy deal late last year. We could also see buyers chase more attractive values in the privately held space. As earnings visibility emerges and estimates are revised higher, valuation concerns could start to fade. My sense is bid/asks are closing in this early stage of the upturn, and we could see some significant deals signed soon.
Q: You mentioned technology as a driver of M&A. What themes are you seeing for innovation on the service side?
A: Brute force factors of unconventional development like lateral length, stage counts, and proppant volumes are beginning to test diminishing return boundaries. As this plays out, we see a big push toward gaining sub-surface clarity so that brute force factors can be harnessed more effectively. This is a focus point right now for OFS technologists. The industry still does not understand the complexity of nano-darcy rock, but innovators are working on advanced science to gain visibility and design around the complexities of unconventional formations.
Q: Do you have a prediction on the US rig count this year? There’s been lots of talk about a lower ceiling given efficiencies, do you subscribe to that view?
A: I do. I believe the rig count will be hard pressed to achieve prior cyclical highs. Same concept as the 1980s – we simply need fewer rigs going forward to unlock production. So far everyone’s been surprised by the strength in drilling activity. Before the OPEC meeting, I had forecast 2017 would close with about 815 rigs working. When I made that prediction, there were about 563 US land rigs working, and today we are already up to 640. I still think we finish the year under 1,000, but we could run up a little over 900 ceteris paribus.
Q: What about specific basins, especially the Permian Basin?
A: In the Permian, we’ve been forecasting aggressive 2017 growth for months. Shortly after the OPEC meeting in November, we projected 150 rigs would return to work in the basin (assuming OPEC’s actions backed their words). In just six weeks since then, 40 rigs have already gone back to work in the play. We are standing by our +110 additional rig expectation there, which is the highest we’ve seen from anyone for the Permian this year.
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