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Today in Energy

May 5, 2022

U.S. oil producers increased capital expenditures and cash from operations in late 2021

quarterly cash flow statement items for 42 U.S. oil companies
Source: Graph by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on data from Evaluate Energy

In response to higher crude oil prices, financial results for 42 U.S. exploration and production (E&P) companies showed large increases in both cash from operations and capital expenditures in the fourth quarter of 2021 (4Q21). Cash from operations for the E&P companies reached $27.5 billion in 4Q21, the largest amount in any quarter since 3Q14. Compared with 3Q21, capital expenditures increased 60% to $15 billion. However, despite higher capital spending and increasing crude oil prices, crude oil production by the E&P companies was still 10% below pre-pandemic levels.

We base our analysis of the E&P sector on the published financial reports of 42 publicly traded U.S. oil companies. These companies do not necessarily represent the sector as a whole. In 4Q21, these 42 publicly traded companies collectively produced 3.8 million barrels per day of crude oil in the United States, or about 33% of total U.S. crude oil production.

The West Texas Intermediate crude oil price averaged $77 per barrel (b) in 4Q21, an increase of $35/b (82%) compared with 4Q20. An increase in crude oil prices generally results in higher production, but production has not grown in response to higher crude oil prices.

One constraint on well drilling and completions is the ability of oil field service companies to provide the needed rigs and crews to bring a well online. Published financial reports for 14 U.S. oil field service companies show that less cash from operations over the past two years has led to decreased capital expenditures compared with pre-pandemic levels, likely resulting in reduced operating capacity.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, employment in oil and natural gas extraction in March 2022 remained 8% below February 2020, its pre-pandemic value. Statements from oil field service companies during recent earnings calls suggest that inflationary pressures and industry shortages in labor and equipment continue to constrain operations.

Another constraint on well completions is a declining inventory of drilled but uncompleted wells (DUCs). After drilling is finished, the well completion process involves casing, cementing, perforating, hydraulic fracturing, and other procedures required before crude oil production can begin from that well. After the crude oil price decline in 2020, E&P companies chose to complete wells at a faster rate than they drilled new wells.

monthly drilled and completed wells in selected oil-producing regions
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Drilling Productivity Report

Completing more DUC wells kept operating costs low in the near term; however, production growth could slow if the number of newly drilled wells continues to remain lower than the number of completed wells. DUC inventories provide E&P companies with the flexibility to coordinate drilling and well completion to avoid operational delays, especially because of the long-term advanced booking that completion crews require. According to our April 2022 Drilling Productivity Report, key U.S. oil-producing regions contained 3,423 DUCs in March 2022, the fewest number since May 2014.

Principal contributor: Alex DeKeyserling