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Onshore contract driller Patterson-UTI Energy Inc. (PTEN - Free Report) declared that its Dec 2013 drill rig count increased by two from Nov 2013 to average 196. The company operated 187 rigs in the U.S. and 9 in Canada in December.

Patterson-UTI reveals that for the three months ending Dec 31, the rig count of the company averaged 183 in the U.S. and 9 in Canada.

Patterson-UTI’s activity levels in the U.S. peaked in early Oct 2008, with a rig count of 275. Since then, and through the second quarter of 2009, the company witnessed a steep and rapid decline in rig count owing to decreased demand, largely caused by lower natural gas prices.

However, natural gas prices have recovered significantly from their multi-year lows amid signs of economic stabilization. Moreover, as the weather becomes cooler, natural gas demand is expected to increase, which would help set an increasing price trend in the coming quarters.

Houston, Texas-based Patterson-UTI Energy is one of the largest onshore contract drillers in the U.S. with more than 275 land-based rigs that operate primarily in the oil and natural gas producing regions of North America. The company operates primarily in three segments – contract drilling, pressure pumping, and oil and natural gas production and exploration – with contract drilling being the most significant contributor to operating income. 

Patterson-UTI currently retains a Zacks Rank #2 (Buy), implying that it is expected to outperform the broader U.S. equity market over the next one to three months.

Other better-ranked players in the oil and gas drilling sector are Helmerich & Payne Inc. (HP - Free Report) , Ocean Rig UDW Inc. (ORIG - Free Report) and Pacific Drilling SA (PACD - Free Report) . All the stocks sport a Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy).