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EQT Corp (NYSE:EQT)
Q3 2020 Earnings Call
Oct 22, 2020, 9:00 a.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by, and welcome to the EQT Third Quarter 2020 Quarterly Results Conference Call. [ Operator Instructions] I would now like to hand the conference over to your speaker today, Andrew Breese, Director of Investor Relations. Thank you. Please go ahead, sir.

Andrew Breese -- Investor Relations

Good morning, and thank you for joining today's conference call. With me today are Toby Rice, President and Chief Executive Officer; and David Khani, Chief Financial Officer. The replay for today's call will be available on our website for a 7-day period beginning this evening. The telephone number for the replay is one (800) 585-8367, with a confirmation code of 8971226. In a moment, Toby and David to present the prepared remarks with a question-and-answer session to follow. An updated investor presentation is available on the Investor Relations portion of our website, which we may reference certain slides during this discussion. I'd like to remind you that today's call may also contain forward-looking statements.

Actual results, future events could materially differ from these forward-looking statements because of the factors described in today's earnings release and in the Risk Factors section of our Form 10-K for the year ended December 31, 2019, and in subsequent filings we make with the SEC. We do not undertake any duty to update any forward-looking statements. Today's call may also contain certain non-GAAP financial measures. Please refer to this morning's earnings release and our most recent investor presentation for important disclosures regarding such measures, including reconciliations of the most comparable GAAP financial measures.

And with that, I'll turn it over to Toby.

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Andrew, and good morning, everyone. Today, I look forward to providing an update on the business and how we've progressed with our strategic initiatives. But first, I'd like to jump right into the positive results of the third quarter. The momentum that we experienced during the transformational first year of managing this company has continued in the third quarter, which was another impressive quarter, both operationally and financially. We delivered sales volumes of 366 Bcfe, which was in line with our original guidance range despite 15 Bcf that we strategically curtailed at the beginning of September and through the remainder of the quarter. On the well cost front, we continue to realize improvements in operational performance, delivering well costs of $660 per foot on our Pennsylvania Marcellus asset.

Third quarter well costs were $20 per foot lower than last quarter, 10% lower than target and 22% lower than just one year ago. This continued progression gives us increasing confidence and makes our future development plan that much more compelling as we continue to find ways to increase performance and enhance results. We continue to do more with less, and that is apparent in our third quarter capex spend of $248 million, which is $227 million below the same period last year and $55 million below last quarter. The efficiencies that we continue to see in both drilling and completions substantiate the capex improvements. With less than 20% of the year-to-date cost improvements being attributable to service cost deflation, these are truly sustainable cost reductions. On the drilling side, we've seen roughly 20% improvement in horizontal drilling speeds quarter-over-quarter and roughly 60% year-over-year, which was accomplished through the continued application of best practices executed by the same crews, guided by a stable operation schedule.

On the completion side, our electric frac fleets are really hitting their stride, improving pumping hours and stages per month by approximately 15%, respectively, quarter-over-quarter. In addition to our electric frac fleet accomplishments, our teams have continued to find ways to streamline our operations. These efforts include automating processes that were previously manual, employing new technologies to increase the reliability, efficiency and safety of our operations, utilizing centralized operating systems, taking data that was once siloed and fragmented and turning it into easily accessible and usable data to drive better decision-making and improved performance. Put simply, we are leaving no stone unturned to find ways to improve the performance of this business.

The continued outperformance has resulted in positive revisions to certain full year 2020 guidance at the midpoint, including an increase to production of 15 Bcfe and a decrease in capital expenditures of $50 million. This represents the fourth time we have reduced our 2020 capital guidance for a total of $275 million or 20% of the original budget, all while delivering more volumes, even considering strategic curtailments. After accounting for a slight widening in expected differentials, this will drive an expected improvement of $25 million in free cash flow. As we continue our financial and operational transformation, we do so with a heightened focus on our commitment to corporate responsibility and transparency.

We recently launched our revamped ESG report, focused on our evolution as a company, enhanced leadership directives, our operational strategy and the implementation of our mission, vision and values, all aimed at becoming the operator of choice for all stakeholders and the clear ESG leader in the natural gas industry. Before I get into highlights of the report, it's important to spend a little time on the criticality of natural gas to the energy mix of the future. You will see on slide 24 of our investor presentation, EQT's operations have the second-lowest emissions intensity of nearly 40 surveyed domestic and global E&P companies during the period. Our peers in Appalachia perform at similar levels. Looking specifically at gas producers, you'll see on slide 25, that of the top 10 U.S. natural gas producers, Appalachian players produce approximately 60% more gas with 70% lower emissions intensity. What excites me about this data is the differentiation of natural gas and, in particular, Appalachian natural gas.

The reliability, availability and cost benefits of natural gas are unquestionable. And we think as people start to look at the data, there will be a decoupling of natural gas from other fossil fuels as it pertains to environmental and socioeconomic benefits. Turning to our ESG report. You will see that we have provided a detailed framework on how we think about our business and how all the pieces are aligned to execute on a cohesive operational corporate and ESG strategy. Our impacts on the ESG side of things are principally an output of operating in an informed, supported and purpose-driven manner.

In our report, we highlight, among other things, the significant environmental benefits of our combo-development strategy; how integrating ESG into our digital work environment improves data collection, analysis and reporting; our commitment to operating safely while utilizing the highest standards to protect and mitigate impacts to the environment; investments made in our local communities, including over $29 million in contributions in the form of infrastructure improvements, grants, scholarships and sponsorships; and steps we are taking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which have decreased 23% compared to 2018. I encourage you to review our report, which can be found on our Investor Relations website. Shifting gears, I would like to talk about the compelling macro and natural gas setup.

There are several main points that drive our multiyear bullish thesis. In the near term, supply and demand will continue to tighten as weather demand overcomes the storage overhang. Core acreage within the gassy regions are continuing to be drilled up, leaving Tier two and Tier three inventory that can only be economically drilled at materially higher strip. And lastly, total U.S. rig counts and completion crews have fallen by approximately 65% since the beginning of the year. In Appalachia, there would need to be about 30% more rigs to keep production flat. And in the Haynesville, that number is about 15% more rigs. In the medium term, within the industry, there was approximately $115 billion of debt due from now until 2023, which has forced producers to focus on corporate returns and fixing their balance sheets rather than growing production. In the long term, we believe there will be a sustainable and long-term global call on U.S. natural gas.

We anticipate that long-term U.S. demand will increase driven by coal and nuclear retirements, partially offset by renewable builds, and long-term global demand will increase driven by economic development in the developing countries. The favorable macro dynamics as well as continued execution of our operational and financial strategies optimally positions EQT to capitalize on this setup and outperform peers. The forward curve for '21 has moved up into the $3 level, and the '22 curve is now in the low to $2.70s. Although important indicators, this will not cause EQT to add growth in 2021 as the curve is still too low and backward-dated.

We are focused on running an efficient business plan aimed at increasing NAV per share driven by efficiency gains and not growth. We believe that one of the most important drivers of value creation for our shareholders is getting our assets valued at a long-term price deck that is closer to $3 as opposed to $2.50. And looking at the strip, there is clearly a need for more discipline from EQT and all other operators to achieve this.

I'd now like to pass the call over to Dave to further discuss some of our financial and strategic highlights.

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Toby. First, I'd like to start by briefly providing some color on the production curtailment that we implemented during the quarter. The curtailment was initiated on September 1, and remained shut-in for the entire month. We began a phased approach of bringing these volumes back online at the beginning of October, and oil production has returned to sales. The driver for the curtailment program was a material price arbitrage between September and winter 2020 pricing and beyond. As we continue to outperform operationally, we're able to defer those extra volumes to be monetized in a much more attractive future price environment.

Additionally, we hedged this production to lock in favorable pricing and the attractive economics, which provides a triple-digit IRR. In all, the impact of the curtailment was 15 Bcf that came out of our third quarter, while we were still able to deliver volumes near the midpoint of our guidance range. Going forward, we will continue to use curtailment strategically to capture incremental value when the opportunity presents itself. This segues nicely into the hedging activity that we recently completed. During the third quarter, the 2021 strip saw increased volatility but ultimately moved higher, currently sitting just above $3. As prices were rising, we were opportunistically adding 2021 hedges during the period to lock in value and protect downside risk with two key goals in mind.

First, the ability to pay off our remaining $900 million of 2021 and 2022 debt with free cash flow and our E-Train equity stake; and secondly, lock in investment-grade metrics. With this hedge position and a strong 2021 and rising 2022 strip, we believe we've achieved these key milestone goals. As the largest producer of natural gas, our hedge program, in a broad sense, is set to provide downside protection while capturing the upside. While it would be better to capture 100% upside from rising prices, it is prudent for us to take the risk away from associated with a warmer-than-normal winter, longer-lasting impacts from COVID and higher-than-expected oil prices.

While initiating forward hedges, we take a surgical approach aimed at targeting the higher-risk seasonal periods, resulting in more risk protection in the volatile summer months while leaving more upside in the winter months to be hedged over time. Since June 30, we have added approximately 350 million dekatherms of 2021 swaps at $2.90, and $155 million of 2021 collars with a $2.75 dekatherm floor and a $3.15 dekatherm ceiling. As a result, we now have approximately 72% of our 2021 expected production hedged, assuming maintenance level production, up from the 40% at the end of the second quarter. During the quarter, we also experienced some regional price volatility and widening of local basis. Our strong fundamental team saw this coming, back in May.

And as a result, we put on a robust basis hedge position for the fall of 2020 for Dominion South and TETCO M2 at a spread of approximately negative $0.90 to Henry Hub. Ultimately, differentials blew out to over negative $1.55, and we were insulated for much of that exposure. Although heavily protected, the significant basis widening during the period did push our third quarter differentials toward the weaker end of guidance, coming in at a negative $0.48 per Mcf. This takes me to a quick overview of our third quarter financial results. As mentioned before, we're able to be within our guidance range for both sales volumes and average differentials at 366 Bcfe and a negative $0.48 per Mcf, respectively. Our adjusted operating revenues for the quarter were $853 million, and our total operating cost per unit were $1.44 per Mcfe.

Operating costs per Mcfe were negatively impacted during the third quarter by the strategic volume curtailments. In addition, for the third quarter of 2020, adjusted SG&A per Mcfe increased as compared to the same period in 2019 due to the higher incentive compensation expense resulting from changes in the value of our awards, which exceeded the favorable impact of our personnel costs from reduction in workforce. As Toby mentioned earlier, we came in below our internal expectations on capital expenditures at $248 million due to continued operational outperformance. Our adjusted operating cash flow for the quarter was $295 million, which led to a positive free cash flow of approximately $47 million. Shifting gears, I'd like to update everyone on the progress we have made on the debt front. In July, we received a $202 million tax refund, including interest, that we used to repurchase approximately $102 million of our four 7/8 senior notes due in 2021.

As of September 30, our net debt was $4.7 billion, which is roughly $100 million higher than the second quarter. This increase was driven by roughly $245 million of borrowings on our revolver for margin deposits associated with the over-the-counter derivatives and exchange-traded gas contracts. These deposits are reported as a current asset in our balance sheet. Importantly, these margin posting requirements change with commodity price movements, and with respect to the over-the-counter derivatives, our credit ratings. Accordingly, our margin deposits will significantly decrease with just the one rating increase, which we are aggressively pursuing and naturally improve with rising natural gas prices.

We view this as a more of a temporary liquidity item rather than a matter of truly impacting our leverage. When adjusting for these margin postings, our net debt decreased quarter-over-quarter by approximately $145 million to approximately $4.47 billion, implying a 2.81 times net-debt-to-adjusting-last-12-months-EBITDA leverage ratio. To add one more aside to our liquidity position, we have seen increased bank competition to participate in our credit facility, which we view as a testament to our financial strength and commitment to our responsible capital allocation. Further enhancing our debt reduction plan is another $48 million in tax refunds that we expect to receive in the fourth quarter related to the successful appeal of certain prior year federal taxes paid. Additionally, we were forecasting $85 million to $135 million of free cash flow in the fourth quarter.

The new tax refund, fourth quarter free cash flow, remaining E-Train stake and a material level of 2021 free cash flow give us high confidence in our ability to achieve our $3.5 billion to $3.7 billion total debt goal by year-end 2021. This, plus an improving strip, all begs the question about our current credit ratings. Our recent discussions with the rating agencies were positive. We believe we currently sit with investment-grade metrics, using the forward curve, which provides us incentive to lock those prices in through hedging. We will continue to pay down debt and hedge more over time as those are two important things we need to do to reach our investment grade. We firmly believe the macro factors that Toby discussed, along with our continued execution, lay the groundwork for positive rating actions over the next 12 to 18 months. To further support this thesis, I'd like to point you to slide 19 in our investor presentation, which shows EQT's debt trading performance against various investment- and non-investment-grade indices.

As you can see, our debt trades in line with investment-grade peers, signaling investors also think of EQT as an investment-grade company. I'd like to conclude on any remarks by -- today by touching on our plan to rationalize our firm transportation portfolio. Constructive conversations continue to take place regarding offloading some or all of our MVP capacity. We do not believe that striking deal is dependent upon MVP being in service and feel that the viability of executing a transaction continues to improve. This is a very important financial catalyst for the company, one of which will drive material improvement to margins and free cash flow. Our team is very focused on this opportunity, and we continue to strive to have something in place at the end of the year.

Now I'll turn it over to Toby to wrap things up.

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Dave. EQT is uniquely positioned to demonstrate the true value that natural gas can and will bring to the future energy mix of this country. As we continue this transformational journey to realize the full potential of EQT's premier shale assets, our focus will not only be on the financial and operational results we deliver, but on how we'd achieve those results. Our strategic approach is centered around the culture we create, the technology we utilize, the people executing the plan and the ultimate impact we have on the environment and communities in which we operate.

All of these elements create a cohesive operational, corporate and ESG-focused strategy being executed with vision and purpose. These foundational elements that we have put in place guide our daily processes and will be what separates EQT from our peers, creating a clear natural gas leader and operator of choice to all stakeholders and ensuring sustainable long-term value creation. I'd like to thank all our employees for their continued hard work and dedication, and everyone in attendance today for their continued interest and support of EQT.

And with that, I'll turn the call over to the operator for Q&A.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

[ Operator Instructions] Your first question comes from Josh Silverstein of Wealth Research. Your line is open.

Josh Silverstein -- Wealth Research -- Analyst

Hi, thanks, good morning guys. Just continuing the thoughts that David had there on MVP. Right now, it certainly makes sense for you guys to get rid of the whole position given the current basis differentials. But with that potentially being the last types out of the basin, and the Marcellus likely having the supply pull on it, is there any thought as to keeping some of the capacity there? Or is it still kind of try to like get rid of it all at this point?

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes. This is Dave, Josh. Yes, we're studying that. And I think just one thing to be careful about. I know basis really blew out a little bit wider than normal. But let's remember that we had a warmer-than-normal winter, and then we were sitting with COVID. And so I think we had a little bit unusual circumstances. But I think -- we're studying that. We're trying to decide whether we want to keep some of that. And just also a reminder, we can probably also replicate that, to some degree, with a sales agreement as opposed to owning all the pipe, too. So there's multiple things we're thinking through here.

Josh Silverstein -- Wealth Research -- Analyst

Got you. And then on the M&A side, two things here. You guys still continue to reference asset sales as part of the debt-reduction strategy. So then just any thoughts there. And then obviously, you guys have been rumored to be in discussions with the Chevron assets. But you might not be able to share much there. If there's any detail you can provide around the production base or the acreage footprint, that would be helpful.

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

Sure, Josh. On the nonstrategic asset sales, we've been pretty consistent on messaging there. I mean the biggest gap for us was the bid-ask spread, largely driven by commodity price used to value the assets. So we've said as the strip materializes to our view, which is sort of closer to where we're at today, that bid-ask spread closes on those nonstrategic assets. So we'll continue to evaluate any potential offers on those as they come in. And then on the M&A front, yes, we're not going to speak about specific deals, but continue to believe that anything we would ever look at would have to be a good strategic fit, at the right value and accretive on a free cash flow per share and NAV basis.

Josh Silverstein -- Wealth Research -- Analyst

Great, thank you.

Operator

Your next question comes from Arun Jayaram of JPMorgan Chase. Your line is open.

Arun Jayaram -- JPMorgan Chase -- Analyst

Yes, Toby, Dave, I was wondering if we could start maybe with an update on the Hammerhead system and if you've exercised your option to purchase the system. I think the agreement called for a 12% discount. And maybe just give us some thoughts on where you stand with E-Train on this dispute.

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes. One, I think we're not going to comment much on -- I think we might put some comment out in our 10-Q at the end of the day today, so you can take a look at it. But I think we're going to be very -- more silent on this and just know that our goal is to -- always to work with our partner, E-Train. And I think we've had disputes in the past and will come to some sort of resolution in the future. So I'd just say, sort of stay tuned.

Arun Jayaram -- JPMorgan Chase -- Analyst

Yes. Fair enough. And just my follow-up would be -- I was wondering if you could maybe help us unpack the free cash flow guide a little bit. I know there's some moving pieces between, call it, organic free cash flow generation and the notable tax proceeds, but can you help us unpack how much of that $325 million free cash flow is kind of from the organic base business versus taxes?

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

Sure. So if you use $325 million as the midpoint here, there's about roughly $100 million of tax refund baked in there. So take it down to $225 million of organic. And just to remind everybody, we shut-in about 65 Bs for this year, roughly. And so that would have been another $65 million probably or more of free cash flow. And then we -- we're going to get about, we'll call it, $450 million of tax refunds on top of that. So that will give you a sense of the total free cash flow plus tax refunds that we're able to use to pay down debt.

Arun Jayaram -- JPMorgan Chase -- Analyst

Okay. If I could sneak one more in, David, you mentioned the collateral postings this quarter. If you did get a 1-notch upgrade, could you just maybe help us think about the magnitude or the improvement of liquidity that you get from that?

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes. I would say it's probably about 2/3 of improvement of that number. And so there's some moving parts in there. We post collateral with the different banks. Different banks have different credit levels, and some of the banks have unlimited credit levels. So we move things around a little bit, and then we also use the exchanges. And so -- but the rough number you should think about is about two-thirds..

Arun Jayaram -- JPMorgan Chase -- Analyst

That's helpful, thanks a lot guys.

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

You're welcome.

Operator

Your next question comes from Scott Hanold of RBC Capital Markets. Your line is open.

Scott Hanold -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Yes, thanks. I appreciate your -- also your comments on MVP and the status of those negotiations. But can you just, for me, I guess, dumb it down a little bit. What are the key discussion points between you and the counterparties right now? And what really is, I guess, holding it up from getting some kind of a decision? I know these are very complex negotiations, but if you can help me out and understand what are some of the kind of back-and-forth points.

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes. I'd just say it's hard to -- we won't get into a lot of things because we are in the negotiations. But I'll just say we have -- we're negotiating with like four or five parties right now. And just to understand, this is a long-term contract. So everybody wants to make sure they understand their needs. And so -- and in some cases, some of the parties who were part of ACP, that was kind of a, in some cases, a shock to the system. So that's just understanding what -- again, what their long-term needs are. So I think it's multiple parties, multiple views and long-term contract, and so it just takes some time. And then I think the last piece is we just want to make sure we understand, from our standpoint, how -- if we want to keep any. And so it just -- all that plays into the timing.

Scott Hanold -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Okay. And you still think, though, year-end '20 is still a good time for them to think of where you'll have some?

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes.

Scott Hanold -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Okay. And my follow-up is just there's been a flurry of consolidation in the space. And obviously, you gave your high-level comments on asset sales in the market. But Toby, maybe if you can give us just a view of where you think like the Appalachian gas market goes from here in terms of consolidation? I mean you've seen some from a lot of the oilier players. Do you think something similar like that is going to happen with the gas players? And how quickly could that evolve?

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Sure. I think investors certainly have an appetite for companies that can operate at a larger scale, not just simply for the sake of scale, but because there's real value to be created. I think you look at what we've done at EQT, taking advantage of our scale. There's real value that we're creating, whether that means we get more reps in the wells that we execute, which will gives us more opportunities to improve operational performance; being able to have access to really cutting-edge technology like our electric frac fleets that you can only put in if you have a stable operation schedule; the benefits of scale you get from having a large operating footprint and a large gathering system that E-Train provides us, which gives us access to a lot more markets.

And then also from a -- on the balance sheet side of things, having an investment-grade credit rating is something that's going to be a differentiator as well. So I mean, I think investors are right in having the desire for larger-scale companies and companies like EQT that can take advantage of that scale and create value for shareholders. I think it's going to be a theme that should be looked for.

Scott Hanold -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Thank you.

Operator

Your next question comes from Holly Stewart of Scotia Howard Weil. Your line is open.

Holly Stewart -- Scotia Howard Weil -- Analyst

Maybe just a couple of quick follow-ups to some of the previous questions. To Josh's question on MVP, Dave, can you remind us what your letter of credit postings are for that project?

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

Thank you. Good morning, gentlemen. Yes, Holly, we don't break it out by pipeline. I just -- we have basically $800 million of letters of credit in place. And again, we don't give it by project.

Holly Stewart -- Scotia Howard Weil -- Analyst

Would it come down materially if you optimized that hole?

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

It would come down, yes. I guess it depends on what you define as material. I think more importantly, as our credit ratings improve, it will come down. And I think that's probably the bigger -- I'd call, the bigger driver between the 2.

Holly Stewart -- Scotia Howard Weil -- Analyst

Okay. Okay. That's helpful. And then maybe, Toby, a follow-up to some of the M&A type of questions. I mean you highlighted in your prepared remarks how Appalachia stacks up on an ESG perspective. Do you think that this ultimately starts moving through the mindset of producers as we kind of look at the oil M&A market here?

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

I mean I think that ESG could just be another barrier to some of the smaller-scale companies. Certainly, on the private side, it's just another thing and feature that you need to bolt-on to your business. Certainly at EQT, with the number of employees and specialists that we have to focus and improve the performance across all the ESG metrics is a benefit you get from a large organization and scale. So I think larger companies are -- have the resources needed to dedicate to improving ESG performance. And ESG performance, we think, is going to be a differentiator and something that investors care about. And we certainly believe the benefits of a strong ESG performance is going to be a key to long-term value creation for shareholders.

Holly Stewart -- Scotia Howard Weil -- Analyst

Okay. Great. And then maybe one final one for me. You've now come in, I think, below your well cost target two quarters in a row. And obviously, your -- now your full year average is well below that. Can you just talk about sort of your well cost trends? And then any potential updates to those targets that you see coming?

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Sure. I think just looking at slide s nine through 12 sort of tell the story. Where we're at right now is we continue to produce results that actually drive value by lowering our well cost. We've sort of gotten past the fix-the-business phase at EQT in the large -- sort of toward the earlier -- when we got in. Now what you're starting to see is the innovative approach that we have at EQT. So you see that's driving the operational efficiencies. We've made some pretty big strides in -- still, on the drilling side and on the completion side. And really, what's driving that is really highlighted on slide 12, which is just the continued application of new technology and leveraging that technology to drive operational efficiencies, which drive well costs.

On top of that, I'd say we've been able to take in the -- to lock in some of the service pricing that we have. About 50% of our services are locked in -- of our spend is locked in to provide some sustainability and the well cost performance that we've been able to demonstrate. So we'll see how much more we can innovate and continue to drive the performance. And I'm encouraged to have an organization that has the ability to evolve and innovate.

Holly Stewart -- Scotia Howard Weil -- Analyst

Great, thanks guys.

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from Mark Carlucci of Morgan Stanley. Your line is open.

Mark Carlucci -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Hi guys, thanks for taking the question. I just want to build on Holly's question, thinking about sustaining capital in 2021. So I think it was a year ago, you gave a $1.15 billion kind of preliminary number. Just curious, any early thoughts on spending or sort of how much of the savings that you realized were sort of built into that prior target.

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

So I would just say that we continue to walk down our 2020 capex and planning for 2021 capex numbers. We're going to continue our maintenance program, and we're going to -- we would say that probably start with what we're at with 2020 for our maintenance capex is going to be a good starting point for 2021.

Mark Carlucci -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Okay. And then just to follow-up on that. The -- so 80% of the cost savings are sustainable. Can you just comment on that remaining piece? Sort of, what scenarios would that come back into the cost structure? I guess how long do you have these service costs locked up for?

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

Why don't you start, Toby? And I'll...

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Sure, yes. As far as the sustainability, I mean, the operation schedule that we have, the lateral lengths that we're putting out there, the percentage of combos, those things are all increasing. So that's going to -- that certainly is very sustainable. That's really what sets the operational teams up to really drive operational efficiencies, which drives cost. So that's under the well design. We're going to continue with the evolved well design that we've been putting in place here. So don't see any changes there, so we have a good idea of what these wells -- what it takes to actually execute these wells, the well design that we have.

And the other thing I'd say is from the sustainability part, from a service-price perspective, I mean, there's my comments on the fact that we've got -- over 50% of our spend is locked in with service costs. So -- and those are the bigger needle-moving items like frac fleets, things that are more sensitive to moving, if you have a rise in activity levels, which, again, we're at pretty anemic levels from an activity-level standpoint. With under 300 rigs running in the country, we don't anticipate service pricing to rise materially because we don't expect activity to rise materially. So we feel like we're in a really good position from a cost perspective to make these sustainable.

Mark Carlucci -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Great, thanks so much guys.

Operator

Your next question comes from Brian Singer of Goldman Sachs. Your line is open.

Brian Singer -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Thank you and good morning.

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning Brian.

Brian Singer -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Wanted to follow-up on the last question there, but really a bit more from a production-activity perspective. You mentioned you want to see more long-term price expectations of $3 or so versus $2.50 to increase activity or have more confidence in doing that. Is the implication then that we should assume you would be producing around fourth-quarter-type levels through 2021 at the maintenance capital? And if gas prices are -- longer-dated futures go to $3, that's when we would expect more of a ramp-up in activity?

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes. I would say we look at -- for us, maintenance capex is -- the production levels that we're looking is probably on a yearly Bcf level as opposed to what our -- what quarterly production level would be. So I mean just peg that at the 1,480 to 1,500 Bcf for the year, yes, with maybe some shut-ins occasionally in there if we want to take advantage of arbitrage.

Yes, and as far as to answer your question on when we would think about growth, we're going to stay consistent with messaging -- with prior messaging, which is there's a couple of things we want to see first. Number one is we want to get our balance sheet and hit our leverage targets, which we're well on track to doing that by end of '21. I think the other thing we look at is you need to have a sustainable strip that's probably more than just the next 12 months out. And so we'll be surveying the landscape when we get to that point.

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

And then maybe the third part is, Brian, I think growth for us is probably 0% to 5%, so it's not going to be like the old heydays of 20%, 30%. So it will be very modest growth if we do grow.

Brian Singer -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Great. And then my follow-up goes back to the topic of M&A. And on the last call, you talked about that you would need to have confidence in M&A free cash flow per share accretion, and you mentioned that again here today. You also mentioned that you would need any M&A to contribute to deleveraging the business. And I realize that you can't talk specifically, but I wondered if you could characterize the market broadly on whether those opportunities are available to achieve both those goals as well as I think you also mentioned the NAV per share earlier in the call.

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes, sure. So I mean we've said historically, it's a buyer's market. We think that, that's still the market that we're in. So it all comes down to hitting those metrics that we talked about, is getting assets at the right price. So I mean that's the -- that, I think, is going to be an ultimate determination on being able to achieve those type of metrics.

Brian Singer -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

And I guess we get the question on that as to the use of equity. And I guess when -- it would seem like if the goal is to contribute to deleveraging, that, that would be a part. But can you comment or talk maybe philosophically about that?

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes. So this is Dave. So one thing to just think about is probably a few weeks ago when we were at a conference, we mentioned to everybody that our balance sheet back a few weeks ago, when the curve was actually lower, we could see ourselves already at sort of two times leverage or less. And so I think from an ability to need equity effectively to fund an acquisition to delever, I think just the fact that the strip has risen up a lot has really put ourselves already in, I would call it, investor-grade metrics.

That's kind of why we talked about it. So I think if we do ever do M&A, I think the need for equity has significantly dropped. And it doesn't mean we wouldn't do it. But I'd just say that I think there are views out there that were written that we'd have to do a lot more equity. But I think, again, to Toby's point, if we buy it right, number one, that's the first point. And then the fact that we're already sitting at investment-grade metrics puts us in another good spot where equity is really less needed.

Brian Singer -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Thank you.

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

You're welcome.

Operator

Your next question comes from Nitin Kumar of Wells Fargo. Your line is open.

Nitin Kumar -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Thanks for taking my question. I'll start with, you've talked a little bit about the long-term growth. And I think, Toby, you mentioned 0% to 5%. Can you -- if there's other legs to the investment case today, it's the cash-return strategy. How are you thinking about it? What are the gating factors for you to start returning some of this extra free cash flow to shareholders?

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes. So hitting our leverage targets by '21, I think, is going to give us the ability to make that decision so that we could be returning capital to shareholders as early as 2021. I think that all things being equal, when it's -- when our balance sheet is getting to the place where we'd like it, growth or return capital to shareholders, we're most likely going to be returning capital to shareholders.

Nitin Kumar -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Got it. My follow-up is actually on slide 15, and you've kind of alluded to this. The industry and the Appalachia seems to be underinvesting in supply. I want to particularly touch on -- so what do you see around you right now? Because I think your comment there is that you're not incentivized and the industry's not incentivized to provide a supply response. Does that mean that -- I mean, I'm just kind of curious, what are you seeing around Board? Are people just being very, very reticent to bring back activity?

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes. I think that you see -- you just look back at the history here. And any time we see a price signal, industry has increased rates and grown production. Any production growth you get is offset by a decline in commodity price. So you're not really making any progress. I think industry gets that right now. I think the fact that operators are looking to organically deleverage their balance sheet by reducing absolute debt as opposed to increasing EBITDA is one of the things that's sort of keeping people disciplined on the growth. And I think the other thing is if you look at the strip and while '21 has certainly come up, which is great to see, you look further out, and I think you look at that strip in '22 and '23, and realize that there's still an opportunity for commodity prices to come up to a level that before anybody would think about adding more activity.

Nitin Kumar -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Great, thank you.

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

Yes. And then I'll just jump in. You can say that if you want to use return on capital employed as a long-term return metric for investors to want to come back and really invest in this space, the industry really needs $3.50 gas over the next five years to really generate that return on capital employed.

Nitin Kumar -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

That's what I was looking.

Operator

Your next question comes from Jeffrey Campbell of Tuohy Brothers. Your line is open.

Jeffrey Campbell -- Tuohy Brothers -- Analyst

Good morning. My first question is on M&A. Toby, since you've said that you think that much or at least a significant portion of Appalachian Tier one acreage is drilling up, what would really be the benefit of having more scale with a less attractive resource?

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Sure. I think it comes down to just the points I made earlier about the benefits of scale. So I mean being able to leverage technology at scale is certainly going to be something that would help. Being able to leverage lower well costs across a larger asset base is another one. Being able to leverage a larger, more robust gathering network access to more markets being the third. And then also being able to take advantage of an investment-grade balance sheet would be the other as well.

And I'd say, strategically, just having a little bit more control over supply with a disciplined approach, I think, is another thing that helps stabilize the commodity. And like we said in our script -- scripted remarks, the thing that's going to increase the value of -- the biggest impact to the value for our shareholders is going to be getting their assets valued at a price that's higher, closer to $3 than $2.50, and more discipline in the industry is certainly going to be a key toward achieving that.

Jeffrey Campbell -- Tuohy Brothers -- Analyst

Okay. And following on your last point regarding forward nat gas pricing, your desire to receive a higher commodity assumption. What sort of oil price do you think is required, I guess, over the next couple of years to keep sufficient volumes of associated natural gas out of the market, which, in turn, would allow a producer like EQT to better control its fate?

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

I would say $50.

Jeffrey Campbell -- Tuohy Brothers -- Analyst

Okay, perfect. Thank you.

Operator

There are no further questions at this time. I will turn the call over to Toby Rice for closing remarks.

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, everybody, for your time today. We spent a lot of time over the past year talking about the results that this organization has been able to produce. But I would urge everybody to take a minute and go to our CSR report at esg.eqt.com. I think it's a great example of how we don't just care about the results we put up, but how we generate those results. And proud of the great work the team has done and put in that report, and I hope everybody can check it out. So thanks, everybody.

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

Thank you.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks].

Duration: 46 minutes

Call participants:

Andrew Breese -- Investor Relations

Toby Z. Rice -- President and Chief Executive Officer

David M. Khani -- Chief Financial Officer

Josh Silverstein -- Wealth Research -- Analyst

Arun Jayaram -- JPMorgan Chase -- Analyst

Scott Hanold -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Holly Stewart -- Scotia Howard Weil -- Analyst

Mark Carlucci -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Brian Singer -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Nitin Kumar -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Jeffrey Campbell -- Tuohy Brothers -- Analyst

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