Tag Archives: Oil Bust

West Texas Bust – “We Never Expected The Good Times To End”

The residents of West Texas are accustomed to a life dependent on hydrocarbons. As Bloomberg reports, the small communities built into the flat West Texas desert are dotted with oil pumps and rigs, and the chemical smell of an oil field hangs in the air.

Here the economy rises and falls on drilling.

When the drilling is good, everyone in the town benefits. When it’s bad, most of West Texas feels the pinch.

Oil prices have plunged as much as 75 percent since June 2014. That drop has dismal consequences for residents, and not just the ones working in oil fields. Bloomberg spoke with some of the people trying to endure the historic dip in oil prices. This video tells some of their stories….

In sharp contrast, click the following to enjoy this bitter sweet October, 2013 oil boom report by (CNN Money) titled ‘Moving in droves’ to Midland, Texas

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Is Big Oil In Bed With The Saudis To Destroy The Fracking Industry?

Summary

  • Saudis want Big Oil to win – have predictable working relationship with them.
  • Big Oil is waiting on the sidelines until the price of properties drop.
  • Those with DUC wells and enough reserves will be able to survive the onslaught.
  • U.S. shale oil remains viable, but the players are going to change.

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As the strategy of Saudi Arabia becomes clearer, along with the response of shale producers to low oil prices, the question now has to be asked as to whether or not the big oil companies support the decision by Saudi Arabia to crush frackers until they have to offer their various plays at fire sale prices.

With the emergence of frackers came a significant number of new competitors in the market that didn’t have an interest in playing nice with OPEC and Saudi Arabia, as major oil companies have in the past. This was a real threat as other OPEC members and shale companies started to take share away from Saudi Arabia.

The general consensus is Saudi Arabia isn’t interested in crushing any particular competitor, rather it’ll keep production at high levels until the weakest producers capitulate. I have thought that as well until recently.

What changed my thinking was analyzing who was the biggest threat to OPEC and Saudi Arabia, and in fact it is the shale industry in the U.S. The reason I draw that conclusion is the energy industry had its traditional competitors in place for many years, and other than occasional moves to impact the price of oil using production levels as the weapon, it has been a relatively stable industry. Shale changed all that.

I think what bothered Saudi Arabia in particular was it didn’t have a working relationship with many of these new competitors, who have been very aggressive with expanding production capacity over the last few years. They were in fact real competitors who were working to take market share away from existing players. And with Saudi Arabia being the low-cost producer with the highest reserves in the world, it was without a doubt a direct assault on its authority and leverage it historically has had on the oil market. Its response to frackers is obvious: it isn’t willing to give up share for any reason.

Where the challenge for Saudi Arabia now is it has started to have to draw on its own reserves and issue bonds to make up for budget shortfalls. It has plenty of reserves, but it appears we now have a clear picture on when it would really come under pressure, which is within a four to five year period. That’s the time it has to devastate its shale competitors.

The other problem for the country is it could take down some members of OPEC in the process, where there are already significant problems they’re facing, which could lead to unrest.

From a pure oil perspective, it seems to be an easy read. Saudi Arabia can outlast the small shale producers with no problem. I think that’s its goal. But it is putting enormous pressure on other countries as well, and there will be increasing pressure for them to slow production in order to support oil prices.

This even extends to Russia, which produces more oil than any other country.

My belief is Saudi Arabia is attempting to force consolidation in the shale industry, so it can resume its dealings with big oil players it has worked with for many years. I believe it’s also what big oil players want. All they have to do is sit back and experience some temporary pain and wait for some of the attractive plays to come onto the market at low prices.

So far the price is still high in the U.S., but as time goes on, the smaller companies will be forced to sell, one way or another. That’s the big opportunity for investors. Identifying those companies with the resources and desire to acquire these properties is the key. That and evaluating the plays with the most potential for those buying them up.

At what price can Saudi crush shale oil?

There are analysts predicting oil price levels that are all over the board. I’ve seen those that believe it’s going to shoot up to over $100 per barrel again, and those that have estimated it could fall to as low as $15 per barrel.

The best way to analyze this is to consider what Saudi Arabia can handle over the longest period of time without destroying its own economy and industry, meaning at what price it can remain fairly healthy and outlast its competitors.

Looking at the price movement of oil and the range it’s now settled into, I think it’s close to what the Saudi have been looking for.

Most smaller shale producers will struggle to make it, if the price of oil remains under $60 per barrel, which it will probably do until Saudi Arabia cuts back on production. There will be occasional moves above that, and probably below $50 per barrel again as well, but I think we can now look to somewhere in the $50 per barrel area as the target being sought. We’ll probably see this be the price range oil will move in for the next couple of years, with $50 being the desired low and $60 being the desired high.

I don’t mean by this Saudi Arabia can absolutely control the price of oil, but it can influence the range it operates in, and I think that’s where we are now.

For that reason oil investors should be safe in investing under these assumptions, understanding there will be occasional price moves outside of that range because of usual trading momentum.

Response from shale oil companies

Some may question why the price of oil got slammed not too long ago, falling below $40 per barrel, if the probable price range for oil is about $10 to $20 per barrel higher.

As mentioned above, some of that was simply from trading momentum. It didn’t take long for it to rebound soon afterward.

The other element was the response by shale companies to the new price of oil, which threatened their ability to pay interest on loans that were due.

Frackers weren’t boosting production because they believed they could outlast Saudi Arabia; they kept production levels high because they had to continue to sell even into that low-price environment or default on their payments. This was a major factor in why prices dropped so far over the short term.

With the bulk of the over $5 trillion spent on shale exploration and development coming from companies operating in the U.S., that is also where the bulk of the risk is.

Much of the efficiencies have been wrung out of operations, and moving to higher producing wells that are less costly to operate can only last so long. I believe efficiencies will position some in the industry to survive the current competitive environment, but they will also have to have enough reserves to tap into in order to do so.

Top producing shale wells are at their highest level of productivity in the first 6 months it goes into operation. It gradually fades after that.

Larger players like EOG Resources (NYSE:EOG) have continued to drill, but they are stopping short of production, with approximately 320 DUC wells ready to bring online when the price of oil reaches desired levels. Its smaller competitors don’t have the resources to wait out existing production levels, which is what will again offer the opportunity for patient investors.

In other words, most of what can be done has been or is currently being done, and from now on it’s simply a waiting game to see how long the Saudis are willing to keep the oil flowing.

Most shale producers believed the lowest oil prices would sustainably fall and would be about $70 per barrel. Decisions were made based upon that assumption.

Big oil and Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia and big international energy companies have had close relationships a long time via Saudi Aramco, the state-owned firm.

Those relationships, while competitive, still operated within parameters most agreed upon. Shale producers weren’t playing that game, as they invested trillions and aggressively went after market share. If Saudi Arabia wanted to maintain market share, it had to respond.

If the smaller shale producers thought their strategy though, they must have underestimated the will of Saudi Arabia to fight back against them. Either that or they became overly optimistic and started to believe their own press about the shale revolution.

It’s a revolution for sure, but the majority of those that helped launch it won’t be finishing it.

My point is big oil, in my opinion, doesn’t mind quietly standing on the sidelines as their somewhat friendly competitors destroys their competition and prepares the way for them to acquire shale properties at extremely attractive prices.

I’ve said for some time the shale revolution will go on. The oil isn’t going anywhere. What is changing is who the players will end up being, and what properties they’ll end up acquiring.

With EOG, the strongest shale player, it said the prices of those plays now for sale are still too high; that means the smaller players still think they have some leverage.

My only thought is they are hoping for the large players to enter a bidding war and they can at least recoup some of their capital. I think they’re going to wait until they’re desperate and have no more options.

Sure, some big players may lose out on a desirable property or two, but everyone will get a piece of the action. It appears once the prices move down to levels they’re looking for, at that time they’ll swoop in and make their bids. At that time it’s going to be a buyer’s market.

Big oil companies are the preferable players Saudi Arabia wants to do business with and compete against. They will play the game with them, and there won’t be a lot of surprises.

Some of the companies to watch

Some of the larger companies that have already filed for bankruptcy this year include Hercules Offshore (NASDAQ:HERO), Sabine Oil & Gas (SOGC) and Quicksilver Resources (OTCPK:KWKAQ).

Companies known to have hired advisers for that purpose are Swift Energy (NYSE:SFY) and Energy XXI Ltd. (NASDAQ:EXXI).

Some under heavy pressure include Halcón Resources Corporation (NYSE:HK), SandRidge Energy, Inc. (NYSE:SD) and Rex Energy Corporation (NASDAQ:REXX).

There are more in each category, but I included only those that had at least a decent market cap, with the exception of those that already declared bankruptcy.

Here are a couple of other companies to look at going forward, which can be used for the purpose of analyzing ongoing low prices.

Stone Energy’s credit facility of $500 million is reaffirmed, but may not be liquid enough to endure the next couple of years, even though in the short term it does have decent liquidity. If Saudi Arabia keeps up the pressure, it’s doubtful it will be able to survive on its own. There are quite a few companies falling under these parameters, including Laredo (NYSE:LPI). The basic practice of all of them was to limit the amount of leverage they have in place in order not to have paying off interest as the priority use of their capital, while maintaining a strong credit facility.

I’m not saying these companies will survive, but they will survive if the price of oil stays low, but it will take a lot more to root them up than their highly leveraged peers.

Clayton Williams (NYSE:CWEI) recently put itself up for sale because it can’t afford to continue operating at these prices. It has approximately 340,000 acres under its control, and two of the most productive shale basins in the U.S.

Once it announced it was open to selling, the share price skyrocketed, but since it’s struggling to afford extracting the oil, it’s puzzling as to why some believe it’s going to attract a premium price. It’s possible because of the quality of assets, but it would make more sense for larger companies to wait.

This will be a good test on how big oil companies are going to respond. It’s possible they may be willing to pay for the higher quality shale plays, but under these conditions shareholders would resist paying a significant premium.

If Clayton Williams does go for a premium, it doesn’t in any way mean that’s how it’ll work out for most of the shale companies.

There would have to be a significant reason they would pay such a high price. In the case of CWEI, the catalyst would be high production.

Conclusion

All of this sounds neatly packaged, and if all things proceed as planned, this is how it will play out.

Where there could be some risk is if the Middle East explodes and oil production is interrupted. That would change this entire scenario, and if it were to happen soon, shale companies still in operation would not only survive, but thrive.

Barring that level of disruption, which would have to be something huge, this is how it will play out. After all, with everything going on there now, it hasn’t done anything to disrupt Middle East oil. It would take a big event or a series of events to bring it about. That’s definitely a possibility, but it’s one that is unlikely.

Once all of this plays out, there is no doubt in my mind the bigger oil companies will be much stronger and able to produce a lot more oil.

What we’ll probably see happen is for them to cut back on production to levels where everyone is happy, including the Saudi.

That’s what this war is all about, because shale oil deposits remain in the ground. While some companies can quickly resume production because of the nature of shale oil, which can ramp up production fast, it depends on the will and determination of Saudi Arabia and whether or not the geopolitical situation remains under control.

I don’t care too much about the number of rig counts in shale plays because production can be resumed or initiated quick. The risk is how leveraged the shale companies are, and whether or not they have to continue production at a loss in order to pay off their interest on loans in hopes the price of oil will rise.

What I’m looking for with existing plays is for companies like EOG Resources, which continues to develop wells, but does so without the idea of completing them and bringing them into production until the price of oil rebounds.

Shale oil in the U.S. is alive and well, but those companies overextended and few resources are going to be forced to sell at bargain prices. That will produce a lot of added value to the big oil companies waiting on the sidelines watching it all unfold.

Read more by Gary Bourgeault on Seeking Alpha

Who on Wall Street is Now Eating the Oil & Gas Losses?

by Wolf Richter

Banks, when reporting earnings, are saying a few choice things about their oil-and-gas loans, which boil down to this: it’s bloody out there in the oil patch, but we made our money and rolled off the risks to others who’re now eating most of the losses.

On Monday, it was Zions Bancorp. Its oil-and-gas loans deteriorated further, it reported. More were non-performing and were charged-off. There’d be even more credit downgrades. By the end of September, 15.7% of them were considered “classified loans,” with clear signs of stress, up from 11.3% in the prior quarter. These classified energy loans pushed the total classified loans to $1.32 billion.

But energy loans fell by $86 million in the quarter and “further attrition in this portfolio is likely over the next several quarters,” Zions reported. Since the oil bust got going, Zions, like other banks, has been trying to unload its oil-and-gas exposure.

Wells Fargo announced that it set aside more cash to absorb defaults from the “deterioration in the energy sector.” Bank of America figured it would have to set aside an additional 15% of its energy portfolio, which makes up only a small portion of its total loan book. JPMorgan added $160 million – a minuscule amount for a giant bank – to its loan-loss reserves last quarter, based on the now standard expectation that “oil prices will remain low for longer.”

Banks have been sloughing off the risk: They lent money to scrappy junk-rated companies that powered the shale revolution. These loans were backed by oil and gas reserves. Once a borrower reached the limit of the revolving line of credit, the bank pushed the company to issue bonds to pay off the line of credit. The company could then draw again on its line of credit. When it reached the limit, it would issue more bonds and pay off its line of credit….

Banks made money coming and going.

They made money from interest income and fees, including underwriting fees for the bond offerings. It performed miracles for years. It funded the permanently cash-flow negative shale revolution. It loaded up oil-and-gas companies with debt.

While bank loans were secured, many of the bonds were unsecured. Thus, banks elegantly rolled off the risks to bondholders, and made money doing so. And when it all blew up, the shrapnel slashed bondholders to the bone. Banks are only getting scratched.

Then late last year and early this year, the hottest energy trade of the century took off. Hedge funds and private equity firms raised new money and started buying junk-rated energy bonds for cents on the dollar and they lent new money at higher rates to desperate companies that were staring bankruptcy in the face. It became a multi-billion-dollar frenzy.

They hoped that the price of oil would recover by early summer and that these cheap bonds would make the “smart money” a fortune and confirm once and for all that it was truly the “smart money.” Then oil re-crashed.

And this trade has become blood-soaked.

The Wall Street Journal lined up some of the PE firms and hedge funds, based on “investor documents” or on what “people familiar with the matter said”:

Magnetar Capital, with $14 billion under management, sports an energy fund that is down 12% this year through September on “billions of dollars” it had invested in struggling oil-and-gas companies. But optimism reigns. It recovered a little in October and plans to plow more money into energy.

Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Blackstone which bought a minority stake in Magnetar this year but otherwise seems to have stayed away from the energy junk-debt frenzy, offered these words last week (earnings call transcript via Seeking Alpha):

“And people have put money out in the first six months of this year…. Wow, I mean, people got crushed, they really got destroyed. And part of what you do with your businesses is you don’t do things where you think there is real risk.”

Brigade Capital Management, which sunk $16 billion into junk-rated energy companies, is “having its worst stretch since 2008.” It fell over 7% this summer and is in the hole for the year. But it remained gung-ho about energy investments. The Journal:

In an investor letter, the firm lamented that companies were falling “despite no credit-specific news” and said its traders were buying more of some hard-hit energy companies.

King Street Capital Management, with $21 billion under management, followed a similar strategy, losing money five months in a row, and is on track “for the first annual loss in its 20-year history.”

Phoenix Investment Adviser with $1.2 billion under managed has posted losses in 11 months of the past 12, as its largest fund plunged 24% through August, much of it from exposure to decomposing bonds of Goodrich Petroleum.

“The whole market was totally flooded,” Phoenix founder Jeffrey Peskind told the Journal. But he saw the oil-and-gas fiasco as an “‘unbelievable potential buying opportunity,’ given the overall strength of the US economy.”

“A lot of hot money chased into what we believe are insolvent companies at best,” Paul Twitchell, partner at hedge fund Whitebox Advisors, told the Journal. “Bonds getting really cheap doesn’t mean they are a good buy.”

After the bloodletting investors had to go through, they’re not very excited about buying oil-and-gas junk bonds at the moment. In the third quarter, energy junk bond issuance fell to the lowest level since 2011, according Dealogic. And so far in October, none were issued.

And banks are going through their twice-a-year process of redetermining the value of their collateral, namely oil-and-gas reserves. Based on the lower prices, and thus lower values of reserves, banks are expected to cut borrowing bases another notch or two this month.

Thus, funding is drying up, just when the companies need new money the most, not only to operate, but also to service outstanding debts. So the bloodletting – some of it in bankruptcy court – will get worse.

But fresh money is already lining up again.

They’re trying to profit from the blood in the street. Blackstone raised almost $5 billion for a new energy fund and is waiting to pounce. Carlyle is trying to raise $2.5 billion for its new energy fund. Someday someone will get the timing right and come out ahead.

Meanwhile, when push comes to shove, as it has many times this year, it comes down to collateral. Banks and others with loans or securities backed by good collateral will have losses that are easily digestible. But those with lesser or no protections, including the “smart money” that plowed a fortune into risks that the smart banks had sloughed off, will see more billions go up in smoke.

Next year is going to be brutal, explained the CEO of oil-field services giant Schlumberger. But then, there are dreams of “a potential spike in oil prices.” Read… The Dismal Thing Schlumberger Just Said about US Oil

How Banks Funded the U.S. Oil Boom and (So Far) Escaped the Bust

“Everyone in the [shale] chain was making money in the short term.”

by Asjylyn Loder from Bloomberg Business

When Whiting Petroleum needed cash earlier this year as oil prices plummeted, JPMorgan Chase, its lead lender, found investors willing to step in. The bank helped Whiting sell $3.1 billion in stocks and bonds in March. Whiting used almost all the money to repay the $2.9 billion it owed JPMorgan and its 25 other lenders. The proceeds also covered the $45 million in fees Whiting paid to get the deal done, regulatory filings show.

Analysts expect Whiting, one of the largest producers in North Dakota’s Bakken shale basin, to spend almost $1 billion more than it earns from oil and gas this year. The company has sold $300 million in assets, reduced the number of rigs drilling for oil to eight from a high of 24, and announced plans to cut spending by $1 billion next year. Eric Hagen, a Whiting spokesman, says the company has “demonstrated that it is taking appropriate steps to manage within the current oil price environment.” Whiting has said it will be in a position next year to have its capital spending of $1 billion equal its cash flows with an oil price of $50 a barrel.

As for Whiting’s investors, the stock is down 36 percent, as of Oct. 14, since the March issue, and the new bonds are trading at 94¢ on the dollar. More than 73 percent of the stocks and bonds issued this year by oil and gas producers are worth less today than when they were sold, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Banks’ sell-the-risk strategy underpins the shale oil boom. Lenders extended low interest credit to wildcatters desperate for cash, then—perhaps remembering the 1980s oil bust—wheeled the debt off their books by selling new stocks and bonds to investors, earning sizable fees along the way. “Everyone in the chain was making money in the short term,” says Louis Meyer, a special situations analyst at Oscar Gruss & Son. “And no one was thinking long term about what they’re going to do if prices fall.”

North American oil and gas producers have sold $61.5 billion in equity and debt since January, paying more than $700 million in fees, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Half the money was raised to repay loans or restructure debt, the data show. “Being there for our clients in all market environments, particularly the tough ones, is something we feel very strongly about,” says Brian Marchiony, a JPMorgan spokesman. “During challenging periods, companies typically look to strengthen their balance sheets and increase liquidity, and we have helped many do just that.”

Lenders have been setting aside cash to cover potential energy losses. JPMorgan bolstered its reserves by $160 million in the third quarter. Bank of America’s at-risk loans increased 15 percent from a year ago as a result of the deteriorating finances of some of its oil and gas borrowers. Still, the oil bust has left banks relatively unscathed. Asked why lenders weren’t seeing more losses from energy defaults, BofA Chief Executive Officer Brian Moynihan said in a conference call, “A lot of that risk is distributed out to investors.”

Citigroup, Bank of America, and JPMorgan were among the banks that courted fast-growing shale drillers in the hope that an initial loan would lead to investment banking business. Citigroup’s energy portfolio, including loans and unfunded commitments, swelled to $59.7 billion as of June 30, Bank of America’s to $47.3 billion, and JPMorgan’s to $43.6 billion, according to company filings. “They loan money at cheap rates, and the banks get the fees from the bond and share sales,” says Jason Wangler, an analyst with Wunderlich Securities. “When things are going well, it’s mutually beneficial. Now it’s a different conversation.”

When crude prices plummeted in the early 1980s, hundreds of banks failed across such oil-rich states as Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas. This time around, banks were keen to limit their exposure to a boom-and-bust industry. Every year since 2009, about half the debt and equity sold by North American exploration and production companies was intended, at least in part, to restructure debt or repay loans, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Often the banks selling the securities were the ones getting repaid. “The bankers have gone through this before,” says Oscar Gruss’s Meyer. “They know how it works out in the end, and it’s not pretty. Most of the lenders have been more on top of things this time. They are not going to get caught short in the ways they got caught short before.”

The bottom line: Oil companies have sold $61.5 billion in stocks and bonds since January as oil prices have tumbled.

Energy Companies Face “Come-To-Jesus” Point As Bankruptcies Loom

Last week, amid a renewed bout of crude carnage, Morgan Stanley made a rather disconcerting call on oil. 

“On current trajectory, this downturn could become worse than 1986: An additional +1.5 mb/d [of OPEC supply] is roughly one year of oil demand growth. If sustained, this could delay the rebalancing of oil markets by a year as well. The forward curve has started to price this in: as the chart shows, the forward curve currently points towards a recovery in prices that is far worse than in 1986. This means the industrial downturn could also be worse. In that case, there would be little in analysable history that could be a guide to this cycle,” the bank wrote, presaging even tougher times ahead for the O&G space.

If Morgan Stanley is correct, we’re likely to see tremendous pressure on the sector’s highly indebted names, many of whom have been kept afloat thus far by easy access to capital markets courtesy of ZIRP.

With a rate hike cycle on the horizon, with hedges set to roll off, and with investors less willing to throw good money after bad on secondaries and new HY issuance, banks are likely to rein in credit lines in October when the next assessment is due. At that point, it will be game over in the absence of a sharp recovery in crude prices. 

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Against this challenging backdrop, we bring you the following commentary from Emanuel Grillo, partner at Baker Botts’s bankruptcy and restructuring practice who spoke to Bloomberg Brief last week.  

*  *  *

Via Bloomberg Brief

How does the second half of this year look when it comes to energy bankruptcies?

A: People are coming to realize that the market is not likely to improve. At the end of September, companies will know about their bank loan redeterminations and you’ll see a bunch of restructurings. And, as the last of the hedges start to burn off and you can’t buy them for $80 a barrel any longer, then you’re in a tough place.

The bottom line is that if oil prices don’t increase, it could very well be that the next six months to nine months will be worse than the last six months. Some had an ability to borrow, and you saw other people go out and restructure. But the options are going to become fewer and smaller the longer you wait.

Are there good deals on the horizon for distressed investors?

A: The markets are awash in capital, but you still have a disconnect between buyers and sellers. Sellers, the guys who operate these companies, are hoping they can hang on. Buyers want to pay bargain-basement prices. There’s not enough pressure on the sellers yet. But I think that’s coming. 

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Banks will be redetermining their borrowing bases again in October. Will they be as lenient this time around as they were in April?

A: I don’t know if you’ll get the same slack in October as in April, absent a turnaround in the market price for oil. It’s going to be that ‘come-to-Jesus’ point in time where it’s about how much longer can they let it play. If the banks get too aggressive, they’re going to hurt the value for themselves and their ability to exit. So they’re playing a balancing act.

They know what pressure they’re facing from a regulatory perspective. At the same time, if they push too far in that direction, toward complying with the regulatory side and getting out, then they’re going to hurt themselves in terms of what their own recovery is going to be. All of the banks have these loans under very close scrutiny right now. They’d all get out tomorrow if they could. That’s the sense they’re giving off to the marketplace, because the numbers are just not supporting what they need to have from a regulatory perspective.

Source: Zero Hedge

This Chart Shows the True Collapse of Fracking in the US

by Wolf Richter
https://feww.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/rex-wtillerson-exxon.jpg

Rex Tillerson, Exxon Mobile CEO

“People need to kinda settle in for a while.” That’s what Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson said about the low price of oil at the company’s investor conference. “I see a lot of supply out there.”

So Exxon is going to do its darnedest to add to this supply: 16 new production projects will start pumping oil and gas through 2017. Production will rise from 4 million barrels per day to 4.3 million. But it will spend less money to get there, largely because suppliers have had to cut their prices.

That’s the global oil story. In the US, a similar scenario is playing out. Drillers are laying some people off, not massive numbers yet. Like Exxon, they’re shoving big price cuts down the throats of their suppliers. They’re cutting back on drilling by idling the least efficient rigs in the least productive plays – and they’re not kidding about that.

In the latest week, they idled a 64 rigs drilling for oil, according to Baker Hughes, which publishes the data every Friday. Only 922 rigs were still active, down 42.7% from October, when they’d peaked. Within 21 weeks, they’ve taken out 687 rigs, the most terrific, vertigo-inducing oil-rig nose dive in the data series, and possibly in history:

US-rig-count_1988_2015-03-06=oilAs Exxon and other drillers are overeager to explain: just because we’re cutting capex, and just because the rig count plunges, doesn’t mean our production is going down. And it may not for a long time. Drillers, loaded up with debt, must have the cash flow from production to survive.

But with demand languishing, US crude oil inventories are building up further. Excluding the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, crude oil stocks rose by another 10.3 million barrels to 444.4 million barrels as of March 4, the highest level in the data series going back to 1982, according to the Energy Information Administration. Crude oil stocks were 22% (80.6 million barrels) higher than at the same time last year.

“When you have that much storage out there, it takes a long time to work that off,” said BP CEO Bob Dudley, possibly with one eye on this chart:

US-crude-oil-stocks-2015-03-04So now there is a lot of discussion when exactly storage facilities will be full, or nearly full, or full in some regions. In theory, once overproduction hits used-up storage capacity, the price of oil will plummet to whatever level short sellers envision in their wildest dreams. Because: what are you going to do with all this oil coming out of the ground with no place to go?

A couple of days ago, the EIA estimated that crude oil stock levels nationwide on February 20 (when they were a lot lower than today) used up 60% of the “working storage capacity,” up from 48% last year at that time. It varied by region:

Capacity is about 67% full in Cushing, Oklahoma (the delivery point for West Texas Intermediate futures contracts), compared with 50% at this point last year. Working capacity in Cushing alone is about 71 million barrels, or … about 14% of the national total.

As of September 2014, storage capacity in the US was 521 million barrels. So if weekly increases amount to an average of 6 million barrels, it would take about 13 weeks to fill the 77 million barrels of remaining capacity. Then all kinds of operational issues would arise. Along with a dizzying plunge in price.

In early 2012, when natural gas hit a decade low of $1.92 per million Btu, they predicted the same: storage would be full, and excess production would have to be flared, that is burned, because there would be no takers, and what else are you going to do with it? So its price would drop to zero.

They actually proffered that, and the media picked it up, and regular folks began shorting natural gas like crazy and got burned themselves, because it didn’t take long for the price to jump 50% and then 100%.

Oil is a different animal. The driving season will start soon. American SUVs and pickups are designed to burn fuel in prodigious quantities. People will be eager to drive them a little more, now that gas is cheaper, and they’ll get busy shortly and fix that inventory problem, at least for this year. But if production continues to rise at this rate, all bets are off for next year.

Natural gas, though it refused to go to zero, nevertheless got re-crushed, and the price remains below the cost of production at most wells. Drilling activity has dwindled. Drillers idled 12 gas rigs in the latest week. Now only 268 rigs are drilling for gas, the lowest since April 1993, and down 83.4% from its peak in 2008! This is what the natural gas fracking boom-and-bust cycle looks like:

US-rig-count_1988_2015-03-06=gasYet production has continued to rise. Over the last 12 months, it soared about 9%, which is why the price got re-crushed.

Producing gas at a loss year after year has consequences. For the longest time, drillers were able to paper over their losses on natural gas wells with a variety of means and go back to the big trough and feed on more money that investors were throwing at them, because money is what fracking drills into the ground.

But that trough is no longer being refilled for some companies. And they’re running out. “Restructuring” and “bankruptcy” are suddenly the operative terms.


“Default Monday”: Oil & Gas Face Their Creditors

by Wolf Richter

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Debt funded the fracking boom. Now oil and gas prices have collapsed, and so has the ability to service that debt. The oil bust of the 1980s took down 700 banks, including 9 of the 10 largest in Texas. But this time, it’s different. This time, bondholders are on the hook.

And these bonds – they’re called “junk bonds” for a reason – are already cracking. Busts start with small companies and proceed to larger ones. “Bankruptcy” and “restructuring” are the terms that wipe out stockholders and leave bondholders and other creditors to tussle over the scraps.

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Early January, WBH Energy, a fracking outfit in Texas, kicked off the series by filing for bankruptcy protection. It listed assets and liabilities of $10 million to $50 million. Small fry.

A week later, GASFRAC filed for bankruptcy in Alberta, where it’s based, and in Texas – under Chapter 15 for cross-border bankruptcies. Not long ago, it was a highly touted IPO, whose “waterless fracking” technology would change a parched world. Instead of water, the system pumps liquid propane gel (similar to Napalm) into the ground; much of it can be recaptured, in theory.

Ironically, it went bankrupt for other reasons: operating losses, “reduced industry activity,” the inability to find a buyer that would have paid enough to bail out its creditors, and “limited access to capital markets.” The endless source of money without which fracking doesn’t work had dried up.

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On February 17, Quicksilver Resources announced that it would not make a $13.6 million interest payment on its senior notes due in 2019. It invoked the possibility of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to “restructure its capital structure.” Stockholders don’t have much to lose; the stock is already worthless. The question is what the creditors will get.

It has hired Houlihan Lokey Capital, Deloitte Transactions and Business Analytics, “and other advisors.” During its 30-day grace period before this turns into an outright default, it will haggle with its creditors over the “company’s options.”

On February 27, Hercules Offshore had its share-price target slashed to zero, from $4 a share, at Deutsche Bank, which finally downgraded the stock to “sell.” If you wait till Deutsche Bank tells you to sell, you’re ruined!

When I wrote about Hercules on October 15, HERO was trading at $1.47 a share, down 81% since July. Those who followed the hype to “buy the most hated stocks” that day lost another 44% by the time I wrote about it on January 16, when HERO was at $0.82 a share. Wednesday, shares closed at $0.60.

Deutsche Bank was right, if late. HERO is headed for zero (what a trip to have a stock symbol that rhymes with zero). It’s going to restructure its junk debt. Stockholders will end up holding the bag.

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On Monday, due to “chronically low natural gas prices exacerbated by suddenly weaker crude oil prices,” Moody’s downgraded gas-driller Samson Resources, to Caa3, invoking “a high risk of default.”

It was the second time in three months that Moody’s downgraded the company. The tempo is picking up. Moody’s:

The company’s stressed liquidity position, delays in reaching agreements on potential asset sales and its retention of restructuring advisors increases the possibility that the company may pursue a debt restructuring that Moody’s would view as a default.

Moody’s was late to the party. On February 26, it was leaked that Samson had hired restructuring advisers Kirkland & Ellis and Blackstone’s restructuring group to figure out how to deal with its $3.75 billion in debt. A group of private equity firms, led by KKR, had acquired Samson in 2011 for $7.2 billion. Since then, Samson has lost $3 billion. KKR has written down its equity investment to 5 cents on the dollar.

This is no longer small fry.

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Also on Monday, oil-and-gas exploration and production company BPZ Resources announced that it would not pay $62 million in principal and interest on convertible notes that were due on March 1. It will use its grace period of 10 days on the principal and of 30 days on the interest to figure out how to approach the rest of its existence. It invoked Chapter 11 bankruptcy as one of the options.

If it fails to make the payments within the grace period, it would also automatically be in default of its 2017 convertible bonds, which would push the default to $229 million.

BPZ tried to refinance the 2015 convertible notes in October and get some extra cash. Fracking devours prodigious amounts of cash. But there’d been no takers for the $150 million offering. Even bond fund managers, driven to sheer madness by the Fed’s policies, had lost their appetite. And its stock is worthless.

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Also on Monday – it was “default Monday” or something – American Eagle Energy announced that it would not make a $9.8 million interest payment on $175 million in bonds due that day. It will use its 30-day grace period to hash out its future with its creditors. And it hired two additional advisory firms.

One thing we know already: after years in the desert, restructuring advisers are licking their chops.

The company has $13.6 million in negative working capital, only $25.9 million in cash, and its $60 million revolving credit line has been maxed out.

But here is the thing: the company sold these bonds last August! And this was supposed to be its first interest payment.

That’s what a real credit bubble looks like. In the Fed’s environment of near-zero yield on reasonable investments, bond fund managers are roving the land chasing whatever yield they can discern. And they’re holding their nose while they pick up this stuff to jam it into bond funds that other folks have in their retirement portfolio.

Not even a single interest payment!

Borrowed money fueled the fracking boom. The old money has been drilled into the ground. The new money is starting to dry up. Fracked wells, due to their horrendous decline rates, produce most of their oil and gas over the first two years. And if prices are low during that time, producers will never recuperate their investment in those wells, even if prices shoot up afterwards. And they’ll never be able to pay off the debt from the cash flow of those wells. A chilling scenario that creditors were blind to before, but are now increasingly forced to contemplate.

Midland Texas, Hunkering Down For The Oil Bust

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Active pumping rig located on Highway 385 south of Odessa, photographed Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2014. James Durbin/Reporter-Telegram.  Source: MRT.com 

MIDLAND — With oil prices plummeting by more than 50 percent since June, the gleeful mood of recent years has turned glum here in West Texas as the frenzy of shale oil drilling has come to a screeching halt.

Every day, oil companies are decommissioning rigs and announcing layoffs. Small firms that lease equipment have fallen behind in their payments.

In response, businesses and workers are getting ready for the worst. A Mexican restaurant has started a Sunday brunch to expand its revenues beyond dinner. A Mercedes dealer, anticipating reduced demand, is prepared to emphasize repairs and sales of used cars. And people are cutting back at home, rethinking their vacation plans and cutting the hours of their housemaids and gardeners.

Dexter Allred, the general manager of a local oil field service company, began farming alfalfa hay on the side some years ago in the event that oil prices declined and work dried up. He was taking a cue from his grandfather, Homer Alf Swinson, an oil field mechanic, who opened a coin-operated carwash in 1968 — just in case.

“We all have backup plans,” Allfred said with a laugh. “You can be sure oil will go up and down, the only question is when.”

Indeed, to residents here in the heart of the oil patch, booms and busts go with the territory.

“This is Midland and it’s just a way of life,” said David Cristiani, owner of a downtown jewelry store, who keeps a graph charting oil prices since the late 1990s on his desk to remind him that the good times do not last forever. “We are always prepared for slowdowns. We just hunker down. They wrote off the Permian Basin in 1984, but the oil will always be here.”

It is at times like these that Midland residents recall the wild swings of the 1980s, a decade that began with parties where people drank Dom Pérignon out of their cowboy boots. Rolls-Royce opened a dealership, and the local airport had trouble finding space to park all the private jets.

By the end of the decade, the Rolls-Royce dealership was shut and replaced by a tortilla factory, and three banks had failed.

There has been nothing like that kind of excess over the past five years, despite the frenzy of drilling across the Permian Basin, the granddaddy of U.S. oil fields. Set in a forsaken desert where tumbleweed drifts through long-forgotten towns, the region has undergone a renaissance in the last four years, with horizontal drilling and fracking reaching through multiple layers of shale stacked one over the other like a birthday cake.

But since the Permian Basin rig count peaked at around 570 last September, it has fallen to below 490, and local oil executives say the count will probably go down to as low as 300 by April unless prices rebound.

The last time the rig count declined as rapidly was in late 2008 and early 2009, when the price of oil fell from more than $140 to under $40 a barrel because of the financial crisis.

Unlike traditional oil wells, which cannot be turned on and off so easily, shale production can be cut back quickly, and so the field’s output should slow considerably by the end of the year.

The Dallas Federal Reserve recently estimated that the falling oil prices and other factors will reduce job growth in Texas overall from 3.6 percent in 2014 to as low as 2 percent this year, or a reduction of about 149,000 jobs created.

Midland’s recent good fortune is plain to see. The city has grown in population from 108,000 in 2010 to 140,000 today, and there has been an explosion of hotel and apartment construction. Companies like Chevron and Occidental are building new local headquarters. Real estate values have roughly doubled during the past five years, according to Mayor Jerry Morales.

The city has built a new fire station and recruited new police officers with the infusion of new tax receipts, which increased by 19 percent from 2013 to 2014 alone. A new $14 million court building is scheduled to break ground next month.

But the city has also put away $39 million in a rainy-day fund for the inevitable oil bust.

“This is just a cooling-off period,” Morales said. “We will prevail again.”

Expensive restaurants are still full and traffic around the city can be brutal. Still, everyone seems to sense that the pain is coming, and they are preparing for it.

“We are responding to survive, so that we may once again thrive when we come out the other side,” said Steven H. Pruett, president and chief executive of Elevation Resources, a Midland-based oil exploration and production company. “Six months ago there was a swagger in Midland and now that swagger is gone.”

Pruett’s company had six rigs running in early December but now has only three. It will go down to one by the end of the month, even though he must continue to pay a service company for two of the rigs because of a long-term contract.

The other day Pruett drove to a rig outside of Odessa he feels compelled to park to save cash, and he expressed concern that as many as 50 service workers could eventually lose their jobs.

But the workers themselves seemed stoic about their fortunes, if not upbeat.

“It’s always in the back of your mind — being laid off and not having the security of a regular job,” said Randy Perry, a tool-pusher who makes $115,000 a year, plus bonuses, managing the rig crews. But Perry said he always has a backup plan because layoffs are so common — even inevitable.

Since graduating from high school a decade ago, he has bought several houses in East Texas and fixed them up, doing the plumbing and electrical work himself. At age 29 with a wife and three children, he currently has three houses, and if he is let go, he says he could sell one for a profit he estimates at $50,000 to $100,000.

Just a few weeks ago, he and other employees received a note from Trent Latshaw, the head of his company, Latshaw Drilling, saying that layoffs may be necessary this year.

“The people of the older generation tell the young guys to save and invest the money you make and have cash flow just in case,” Perry said during a work break. “I feel like everything is going to be OK. This is not going to last forever.”

The most nervous people in Midland seem to be the oil executives who say busts may be inevitable, but how long they last is anybody’s guess.

Over a lavish buffet lunch recently at the Petroleum Club of Midland, the talk was woeful and full of conspiracy theories about how the Saudis were refusing to cut supplies to vanquish the surging U.S. oil industry.

“At $45 a barrel, it shuts down nearly every project,” Steve J. McCoy, Latshaw Drilling’s director of business development, told Pruett and his guests. “The Saudis understand and they are killing us.”

Pruett nodded in agreement, adding, “They are trash-talking the price of oil down.”

“Everyone has been saying ‘Happy New Year,’” Pruett continued. “Yeah, some happy new year.”