Nearly four months into an OPEC-led production cut designed to rein in a global oil glut and lift prices, the bleeding in Louisiana's oil and gas industry hasn't stopped, and uncertainty about the future remains high. 

A ramp-up in U.S. production has helped fill the void left by the 13-nation oil cartel's pact and has kept a lid on prices after they climbed following the cut, which was joined by major oil producer Russia and 10 other non-OPEC countries.

Questions surrounding future prices remain, however, pinned to whether global demand will grow to absorb the increased U.S. production and whether the OPEC supply cuts will be extended into the second half of the year.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries next meets May 25 in Vienna, and its leaders and allies have signaled early support for continuing the cuts.

Across Louisiana, business leaders and local officials are crossing their fingers.

"Until worldwide demand picks up significantly, the offshore (Gulf of Mexico) guys are delaying or hesitating to put a lot of emphasis (on increasing production) in that area," said Frank Fink, director of economic development for St. Mary Parish.

Fink said he believes oil needs to rise to around $65 per barrel to "provide a little more certainty and a little more capability for the offshore to really look forward … to a more stable market again."

However, he said, "I don't think that there's a death spiral going on at all."

The spot market price of Brent crude, the international benchmark followed by many refineries, has flattened since the OPEC cuts were put into effect. Crude hit nearly $54 per barrel on April 10, down slightly from about $55 when the OPEC cuts took effect Jan. 1.

That's up from $48 per barrel when the deal was announced in late November. The problem is that prices are still less than half the $110 in place three years ago.

One major problem for OPEC, many analysts point out, is that its agreement to limit production doesn't apply to U.S. energy companies, and domestic oil production is on the upswing.

After averaging about 8.9 million barrels per day in 2016, U.S. crude oil production is forecast to average 9.2 million barrels in 2017 and 9.9 million barrels in 2018, the federal Energy Information Administration reported last week.

Helping lead the boost: rising production from U.S. shale fields and a bit more offshore production in the Gulf of Mexico, which is expected to continue climbing through 2018.

After years of development, eight deepwater projects in the Gulf went online last year, and seven more are expected to be active by the end of 2018.

But that's not been enough to sustain many of Louisiana's companies providing services to the offshore oil and gas industry.

In an earnings call with analysts in February, Todd Hornbeck, head of Covington-based Hornbeck Offshore Services, estimated that about two dozen drilling units were working in the deepwater Gulf, which was down significantly despite the recent upturn in prices.

"Even as the industry worked through a year of recovering oil prices, deepwater rig deployment declined sharply, by 33 percent," Hornbeck said.

At the time, Hornbeck noted, 19 drilling units were scheduled for 2017, even as oil prices sat in the low to mid-$50s.

"Market sentiment and misplaced hope brought on by improved commodity prices will not fix the structural oversupply of vessels during this depressed market," he said. "The facts are that as bad as 2016 was, 2017 will likely even be worse."

Statewide, the labor sector that includes oil and gas jobs lost more than 6,400 workers in the 12 months ending in February, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Perhaps in a sign of recent improvement, the same sector added 200 jobs in February alone, the first gain since late 2014.

Still, Louisiana's most oil-dependent metro areas continue to suffer from the trauma of three years of depressed oil prices. In February, Lafayette was down 5,900 jobs and Houma-Thibodaux lost 5,300 jobs, both marking the 25th consecutive month of year-over-year losses.

"You're not going to see a stop in the blood-letting in Houma or Lafayette until the Gulf of Mexico starts to come back," said Loren Scott, a retired LSU economist and longtime analyst of the state's economy.

In the short term, areas like the highly productive, cheaper-to-drill Permian Basin in Texas — where nearly 1,760 wells were drilled but not completed by February — could benefit from a modest price increase, experts say.

Led by areas such as the Permian Basin, the U.S. rig count continues to climb. There were 847 rigs exploring for oil and natural gas in the U.S. last week, up by eight from a week earlier and up by 407 from a year ago, according to Houston oilfield services company Baker Hughes Inc. The rig count bottomed out in May at 404.

Louisiana's active rig count stood at 58 last week, up 10 from a year ago.

Some observers contend that prices actually may be inflated a bit and could produce a rude awakening for the industry.

Among them is David Dismukes, executive director of the LSU Center for Energy Studies, who notes that even though national oil stockpiles have dipped slightly recently, they're still high, as is domestic production.

"I'm looking for a correction here somewhat soon," Dismukes said. "Not a big fall, but seeing prices in the $40s is probably going to be a little more likely."

Although Dismukes and others expect that the OPEC cuts are likely to be renewed when members meet again next month, he questions whether they will be as effective.

"The ability to force compliance is going to get harder and harder as they move through the summer, particularly if U.S. production numbers are good and inventory numbers over a longer trend are just not moving measurably," he said.

Other analysts agree, noting that OPEC members increased production leading up to the date when the cuts went into effect, another factor that's led to a lid on prices.

"OPEC really set themselves up for that failure by running as much crude as they could in November, December," said Tom Kloza, global head of energy analysis for the Oil Price Information Service.

"They've complied at a much better rate than anyone would've probably suspected, but the problem is that before Jan. 1, they were looking under every rock they could find to send some crude oil out to the market," he said.

Experts also predict that although compliance with the OPEC quotas has been high, that may fall later in the year.

"Everyone needs to remove the notion of $70 to $80 crude off of the table," Kloza said.

For now, he predicts that a per-barrel price in the mid- to high $50s is "about as good as it can get."

Though many in Louisiana's oil and gas industry already have spent years trying to trim costs, experts say it's going to take a sustained lift in crude prices to pull the industry out of the doldrums.

"There just comes a point where they can't go down anymore," Scott said "It's just a real problem, and I think that's why you haven't seen a turnaround in Lafayette and Houma yet."


Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.