Oil and gas price hedges helped many exploration and production companies keep money coming in the door as commodity prices cratered last year, but they have significantly less protection in 2016.
North American oil and gas producers have just 15 percent of output hedged this year, according to a study of 51 drillers by analytics firm IHS.
Small and midsized producers are better hedged than their larger counterparts, but some of these smaller players have substantial debt loads and insufficient price protection.
“For those guys it’s going to be a tricky year especially,” Paul O’Donnell, principal equity analyst at IHS energy told CNBC. “There are companies in the small and midsized peer groups that are in that predicament in that sense.”
Drillers take out hedges to protect themselves against future fluctuations in commodity prices. Throughout 2015, hedging allowed many producers to lock in prices well above what they would have earned had they sold their product at spot prices.
In the final quarter of 2015, 27 percent of U.S. oil production at a weighted average price of $72.35 per barrel was hedged, and 34 percent of natural gas at $3.91 per thousand cubic feet, or Mcf, was protected.
In 2016, U.S. companies have just 15 percent of oil and 19 percent of natural gas production hedged. In 2017, those figures fall to 2 percent of oil and 7 percent of gas.
Just less than half of production coming from small U.S. producers — 47 percent of oil output at $74.31 per barrel and 46 percent of gas at $3.43 per Mcf — is hedged next year. Midsized U.S. producers came just behind, with 43 percent of oil production at $60.54 and 26 percent of gas at at $3.34 hedged.
In the small peer group, Comstock Resources, Approach Resources and Stone Energy are most at risk due to high debt and low hedging, according to IHS. Among midsized drillers, IHS warned Ultra Petroleum and SandRidge Energy could come under financial stress.
The companies did not immediately return a request for comment.
The majority of large U.S. exploration and production companies are unhedged going into 2016 and 2017, but they typically have larger financial cushions to weather the rout.
Since the big producers account for so much of U.S. production, their low percentage of hedge production dragged down the total for the 51 companies IHS studied.