Energy stocks jumped 4.5% on Monday after OPEC's surprise production cut lifted oil prices, but not all energy stocks got a bump.
In fact, the move by OPEC may end up hurting natural gas companies, which have already struggled in 2023. Natural-gas prices slipped 5.4% on Monday, and were up a penny on Tuesday to $2.11 per million British thermal units. They are down 53% on the year.
The commodity's decline weighed on shares of the producers.
Companies such as EQT (ticker: EQT), Chesapeake Energy (CHK), Coterra (CTRA), and Southwestern Energy (SWN) trailed the broader energy market on Monday even as energy companies with more oil exposure, such as Marathon Oil (MRO) and Exxon Mobil (XOM), gained 9.9% and 5.9%, respectively.
The problem for natural gas stocks is that high oil prices are likely to affect them negatively. With oil prices on the rise, oil producers are incentivized to drill more. In the U.S., most oil drilling happens today in shale-rock formations that produce both oil and natural gas. So as oil production rises, natural gas production does too—analysts call this "associated gas." Although the oil market is tight, the U.S. natural gas market is already oversupplied. So any further incentive to produce more of it is likely to weigh on natural gas stocks.
The current natural gas glut comes after a severe global shortage last year precipitated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The producers' stocks soared as prices rose above $9 and more gas than ever was shipped to Europe to replace volumes that were no longer coming from Russia. But unseasonably warm weather this winter sapped European and American demand for natural gas. Overall demand is weak as supply has ramped up. And an outage at a key export terminal stopped U.S. producers from being able to ship some of their gas overseas.
To balance the market again, producers will have to shut down some of their production. OPEC's latest move will make that much more difficult, because companies that produce oil now have more incentive to drill, and invariably they will produce more associated gas, too. In particular, drillers in the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico are likely to increase activity, putting the onus on other natural gas-focused producers to curb their activity, some analysts said.
"This may place additional strain on both the Haynesville and Appalachian basins to further curtail activity to balance the domestic storage levels heading into next winter, a clear negative for all parties," wrote Citi analyst Scott Gruber.
The bull case for natural gas centers around a growing export market for the commodity. Europe no longer buys Russian natural gas, opening an opportunity for American producers to send European customers more natural gas in liquefied form. But it will take a couple of years for American export capacity to expand enough to allow the industry to grow. While demand may be relatively weak this year, it could start to turn higher in late 2024, some analysts predict.
Bank of America analyst Doug Leggate is bullish on the gas producers. He doesn't expect as much of an associated gas risk because oil drillers aren't expanding capacity very quickly today, even with high oil prices.
"Put simply we see capital discipline that has slowed oil growth in the Permian, similarly slowing growth in zero-cost-of supply gas," he wrote on Monday.
He expects the new export capacity coming online to lift U.S. natural-gas prices more in line with higher European and Asian ones. In line with that view, the natural gas futures market is forecasting much higher prices next year.
After its time in the spotlight last year, natural gas is taking a back seat to oil following OPEC's announcement. As the energy market's new dynamics play out, it could take a central role again soon.