IN THE wilds of western Texas, a flicker of life has returned to the fracking, or hydraulic-fracturing, industry. In the past four weeks nine idled oil rigs have been put back to work in the Permian basin, the richest of America’s shale-oil provinces. That is only a tiny fraction of the 429 that had been taken out of service over the previous 18 months as the oil price plunged, at one point hitting a low of under $30 a barrel. But it is the first four-week rise in a year.

In recent weeks the oil price has recovered to around $50 a barrel (see chart). Scott Sheffield, boss of Pioneer Natural Resources, one of the top producers in the Permian, points out that futures prices for delivery in a year’s time have also risen above $50 a barrel, which allows him to lock in a decent profit on any new wells he can bring into production by then. Hence he may soon raise the number of rigs his firm has drilling in the Permian from 12 to at least 17 and perhaps as many as 22. “The Permian has bottomed out,” he says.

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