SALT LAKE CITY — Active drilling rigs in the nation's top 10 oil- and gas-producing counties are down 57 percent over the 2015 average and overall, the U.S. rig count continues to diminish week by week in the face of slumping prices.
In fact, a top industry analyst said Wednesday that the current crisis across the industry is worse than what the nation experienced in the 1980s, when the price of a barrel of crude oil plunged six consecutive years, and by more than half in 1986 alone.
By comparison, U.S. crude oil prices have dropped as much as 70 percent since 2014, and more than 4,000 production wells initiated by companies have been left unfinished.
"The wild card is how long it will take before it gets better," said Trey Cowan, a senior research analyst with RigData, which tracks, analyzes and disseminates industry activity.
Cowan lead a webinar Wednesday that took stock of the industry's status called "When Will the Rigs Return?"
A Texas certified public accountant, Cowan jokingly subtitled his presentation "Wishin' and Hopin' and Thinkin' and Prayin'," noting that the sentiment accurately reflects the anxiety — and uncertainty — that swirls around the industry.
"It really captures the mood of the industry as we are waiting for the tide to turn," he said.
Still, Cowan said he sees reason for some optimism after his survey of more than two dozen producers in major oil and gas areas across the country.
While the companies aren't initiating any new production at a significant level, they don't indicate they plan to pull down any more equipment.
"It would suggest there are not many rigs left to lose here."
The U.S. rig count sits at 443, down 545 rigs from last year.
In Utah, the rigs have vanished, leaving oil- and gas-producing regions of the state awash in high unemployment rates and vacant businesses while high-paid workers seek jobs elsewhere.
Cowan warned that what does give him pause is the imbalance in this downturn between the falling prices and the unemployment numbers. As bad as the layoffs have been, Cowan said they have not shadowed decreasing rig counts like one would think.
"Employment is doing much better than the rig count, as hard as that is to believe," suggesting another 100,000 to 200,000 jobs could be lost in the next two years, Cowan said.
The industry outlook was released as Utah's top energy regulators and policymakers prepare to meet in Duchesne County on Thursday to discuss the latest trends and the state's particular challenges when it comes to the Uinta Basin's thick black waxy crude.
Organizers, which include the Governor's Office of Energy Development, are looking for ways to promote the unique waxy crude as a better quality, and safer alternative, to Canadian crude oil.
Declining prices sparked some changes in oil and gas activity on federal and tribal lands across the country, with a new Bureau of Land Management report indicating the total number of acreage leased fell, dropping to 810,000 in 2015 from 1.2 million acres from the year before.
In Utah, 97 new leases were issued, according to BLM numbers, compared to 120 in 2014. Agency approval of actual drilling permits fell as well, dropping from 963 in fiscal year 2014 to 553 in fiscal year 2015.
Perhaps the most telling barometer of the industry's health in Utah is the BLM statistic for the number of wells spudded — or started. In 2014 there were 457, compared to 155 over the last fiscal year.
The Deseret News chronicled some of the impacts of the collapsing oil and gas economy on the Uinta Basin a two-part series earlier this year.