By Rebecca Elliott and Christopher M. Matthews
After pushing U.S. oil and natural-gas production to record levels, some shale companies plan to pump less.
The pullback is sharpest among the country's largest natural-gas drillers. Several producers, including EQT Corp. and Chesapeake Energy Corp., have said during third-quarter earnings that they may shrink output next year.
But even more oil-focused shale companies are promising to rein in spending and forecasting slower growth. Diamondback Energy Inc., Callon Petroleum Co. and Cimarex Energy Co., all active in the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico, told investors last week they were contemplating holding next year's spending around current levels.
Voluntarily restricting growth is a new dynamic for the industry and reflects a calculus that it is better to spend and produce less while hoping for higher commodity prices. A pullback by oil producers would likely cause U.S. oil production growth, already slowing this year, to flatten further in 2020. Natural-gas companies, meanwhile, are attempting to whittle down a glut that has driven prices to multiyear lows.
"I don't think OPEC has to worry that much more about U.S. shale growth long term," Scott Sheffield, chief executive of Pioneer Natural Resources Co., recently told investors.
The belt tightening comes as many shale companies are under financial pressure to produce returns as their access to capital constricts. While some generated positive free cash flow during the third quarter, the industry has a long way to go to win back investors, who have grown weary of its lackluster returns.
Shale producers expect to spend about 17% less in 2020 than they did this year, according to a Cowen & Co. analysis of 14 companies that have provided spending guidance. Eleven of the 14 plan to cut spending next year.
Among them is Pittsburgh-based EQT, the country's largest natural-gas producer, which plans to spend roughly $400 million less next year and said last week its production could decline slightly. Chief Executive Toby Rice said spending could fall an additional 30% after 2020, citing lower gas prices.
"I think it's pretty clear there was just too much supply," Mr. Rice said in an interview. "What's being rewarded by investors right now is not production growth at all costs."
Natural-gas prices averaged $2.41 per million British thermal units from April through September, the lowest level in decades, according to consulting firm RBN Energy. Most analysts believe prices will remain low for years.
Bank of America last month lowered its outlook for gas prices in 2020 to $2.35, down from $2.60 and below the price at which drilling is profitable in many regions.
Chesapeake, the shale drilling pioneer co-founded by the late wildcatter Aubrey McClendon, said that it plans to slash spending as well as drilling and fracking activity by about 30% next year, resulting in lower natural-gas output.
The Oklahoma City-based company has struggled with hefty debt for years and warned in a securities filing that it risks defaulting if it cannot sufficiently reduce its leverage to comply with a credit agreement. Chesapeake's shares plunged more than 40% to 91 cents in the two days following its disclosure.
Chief Financial Officer Nick Dell'Osso Jr. told investors that the company aims to reduce its debt but could ask its bank group for a waiver.
For companies that predominantly drill for oil, the current budget cuts reflect their limited ability to borrow money as much as they do crude prices, said Raoul LeBlanc, an executive director at IHS Markit. Oil prices have hovered around $60 a barrel for much of 2019 but are a far cry from the most recent bust, when they fell below $30 a barrel.
"These guys don't have the ability to borrow anymore," Mr. LeBlanc said.
IHS forecasts total U.S. oil production to increase by 440,000 barrels a day in 2020 before essentially flattening out in 2021, even as major oil companies such as Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. ramp up in shale basins. In 2018, oil production grew by roughly 2 million barrels a day.
Mark Papa, chief executive of Centennial Resource Development Inc., echoed that prediction, saying last week that U.S. shale will be in what he called a "growth-challenged environment" for the next decade.
"We are seeing a clear turning point, in what the U.S. oil contribution is going to be into the global marketplace," Mr. Papa said in an interview.
Diamondback Energy, a Permian-based driller, is one of the few shale companies to generate a positive return for shareholders over the past five years.
The company's shares fell 14% Wednesday after reporting during third-quarter earnings that its oil output fell 2% from the second quarter, even as it generated more natural gas.
The company also said it plans to hold spending relatively flat next year.
At that outlay level, Diamondback thinks it can increase production by at least 10%.
Chief Executive Travis Stice told investors that he expects the number of active drilling rigs in the U.S. to continue to decline as investors demand that companies spend within cash flow and restrict access to outside money.
The number of active rigs has dropped by 296 so far this year, a 26% reduction, according to data analytics firm Enverus.
"Expectations for 2020 U.S. production growth need to recalibrate lower, " Mr. Stice said.
Write to Rebecca Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org and Christopher M. Matthews at email@example.com