Derek Butter, Scotland-based head of corporate analysis for energy research and consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, says U.S. natural gas prices won’t bounce back until 2015.

We hope Butter is wrong. So do some of the 200 WoodMac clients Butter addressed while in Houston this week. His comment is uber-paraphrased, and he plans to provide more details in a full report later. Butter says jaws dropped. It is likely that the mood did as well.

Is Butter wrong? Some of his estimate is based on a bet that more uncontracted LNG will land on U.S. shores. He adds that some gas producers, such as StatoilHydro, which is buying into the Marcellus shale play, will drill without regard for super-near-term gas prices.

The view is contrary to that of other seers, who believe that a correction in gas prices is likely in this, the next or another near quarter. Here are a couple of reasons.

-- Producers are slashing E&P budgets, and most U.S. oil and gas producers are weighted to gas-targeted capex, so undifferentiated capex cuts would largely affect their gas-drilling plans.

-- Nearly a third of current U.S. gas production is from wells that have been brought online in the past year, notes Union Drilling Inc. chief executive Chris Strong. He addressed attendees at the Rodman & Renshaw annual global investment conference last week in New York.

The U.S. count for rigs targeting gas resources has grown from 200 to 1,500 since 2002, but all of that effort has resulted in roughly the same amount of annual gas supply, he notes.

And, some 6 trillion cubic feet of the 19 trillion of gas produced in the U.S. annually is now made from wells that have been producing less than one year. If the gas-focused rig count falls by 400, as some industry equity analysts suggest, “you’re going to have a significant production impact fairly quickly,” Strong says.

Furthermore, IHS Herold Inc. analysts John B. Parry and Daniel T. Pratt report that half of the natural gas consumed in the U.S. in 2007 was produced from wells drilled within the previous 40 months. In 2005, half of gas production was from wells drilled in the previous 48 months, they add.

Referring to a graphic accompanying their report, they add, “Should producers rein in their drilling plans, as many are currently doing, the implied production-decline rates could rapidly reverse the current ‘mini-bubble’ and drive natural gas prices higher, economic conditions permitting.”

The opinions of each—Butter on one side; Strong and Parry/Pratt on the other—differ widely. U.S. gas producers are hoping for sooner, and not later.

Of course, there could be a driver of new U.S. gas drilling that is counter to commodity-price fundamentals—strategic drilling for the sake of holding acreage by production, such as in Haynesville and other shale plays.

Still, a year of for-purposes-of-HBP-only drilling is not likely to replace a third of annual U.S. gas supply. Also, the wells can be drilled but don’t have to be put into sales. If increased take-away capacity from these big gas plays is suspended due to capital constraints, there won’t be the pipe to put it in.

–Nissa Darbonne, Executive Editor, Oil and Gas Investor, A&D Watch, Today,,;