(Adds Pioneer output cuts will be minimal, earnings)
HOUSTON, May 7 (Reuters) - U.S. shale producer Pioneer Natural Resources expects oil prices to recover to at least $45 per barrel this year, its chief executive said on Thursday.
Producers slashed output and energy companies cut tens of thousands of jobs as plummeting demand for fuels and a global supply glut sent prices below $20 a barrel last month. At that level, few U.S. shale producers would be able to cover their production costs.
Even when U.S. and global benchmark prices return to $45 a barrel, "very few" U.S. producers would be able to afford to expand production because of high debt levels, Scott Sheffield, Pioneer's chief executive, said in a call with investors.
U.S. and international oil futures were trading about $25.75 and $31 per barrel, respectively, on Thursday.
"There will probably only be a handful of companies that can grow, maybe five in my opinion, in the $45 to $50 WTI and Brent world," Sheffield said of his shale oil counterparts.
Sheffield recently called for Texas energy regulators to mandate 20% production cuts to reduce the supply glut. Pioneer plans to take about 3%, or 7,000 barrels per day, of existing oil production off the market.
Its total output of oil and gas will be about 11% below a target set earlier this year.
"We had the benefit to be able to move all of our crude oil on the Gulf Coast and export a lot of it," he said. Other shale producers have cut a larger portion of their production because of a lack of pipeline transport to export hubs, he said.
Pioneer earned $289 million, or $1.74 per share, in the first quarter ended March 31, down from $350 million, or $2.06 per share, in the same period a year ago. Adjusted per share earnings of $1.15 topped Wall Street's $1.11 estimate.
Reporting by Gary McWilliams Editing by Bernadette Baum and Lisa Shumaker