DPC School Street and Parker House, Boston MA 1906
It’s been only two months since I last -again – addressed the shale industry, but apparently it’s still not clear enough what a predatory scheme it is. Today, Bloomberg adds even more fuel to the fire. If you want to know how the combination of slip-sliding legal standards and ultra-low interest rates has perverted the US – and global – economy, you need look no further than shale.
The central point the Bloomberg article evokes is simple: does the difference between proved reserves, probable reserves and possible reserves (or resource potential), as reported by oil and gas extraction companies, constitute a lie? And the answer is just as simple: no, it doesn’t. But that’s not where the issue ends, it’s where it begins.
That is, if the difference between the two gets too wide, – potential – investors in company stocks and bonds are not getting the information they are entitled to. The industry may claim, as in the article, that investors are aware of the discrepancy inherent in the numbers, but that’s at best true for most investors, and the bigger ones. Still, the companies shouldn’t be able to use that as some unlimited excuse to claim whatever they wish. Because they can basically throw out any number they want in front of investors, no matter what it’s based on, and it’s legal.
And while there may be a kernel of truth in this bit …
“They’re running a great risk of litigation when they don’t end up producing anything like that,” said John Lee, a University of Houston petroleum engineering professor who helped write the SEC rules and has taught reserves evaluation to a generation of engineers. “If I were an ambulance-chasing lawyer, I’d get into this.”
… there’s also something missing. By the time investors can start any litigation, chances are the companies involved may be long gone. The greater public, and some of the investors, may be fooled, but the industry people themselves? They know about the depletion rates typical of shale wells, of the fact that few wells ever make their owners any real profit, and of the $500 billion(!) the industry lost over the past 5 years.
The shale industry runs on debt, not on energy. And as long as these companies can issue junk bonds at low rates, they will. But that doesn’t mean they will ever be profitable. For their owners, sure, they’re raking in dough like it’s Halloween candy, but for investors in those bonds things don’t look so rosy. Shale is a Ponzi.
And US law allows it to grow. One set of reserves gets presented to the regulator (SEC), and an entirely different one to the investor. One company, Rice Energy, tells investors it has 27 times as many reserves as it tells the SEC.
To count as proved reserves to the SEC, companies must have “reasonable certainty” that the oil and gas will be extracted from existing wells and those scheduled to be drilled within five years. [..] The forecasts are based on fuel prices, geology, engineering and the performance of nearby wells. Planned wells must be economically and technically viable.
Whereas forecasts for investor presentations are based on a combination of hopium, wishful thinking, media savvy, creative accounting and pure fantasy. This is ‘justified’ by saying: ‘everybody knows we lie, so who cares if we lie’. Except that it’s not legally a lie.
No such rules apply to appraisals that drillers pitch to the public, sometimes called resource potential. In public presentations, unregulated estimates included wells that would lose money, prospects that have never been drilled, acreage that won’t be tapped for decades and projects whose likelihood of success is less than 10%.
Figures the company executives cite during presentations “are used in the capital allocation process, and are a standard tool the investment community understands and relies on in assessing a company’s performance and value …” [..] The presentations rarely explain how the drillers calculated the figures. The numbers sometimes change from one presentation to the next.
On account of thorough research by the companies, no doubt.
… companies use their own variation of resource potential, often with little explanation of what the number includes, how long it will take to drill or how much it will cost. The average estimate of resource potential was 6.6 times higher than the proved reserves reported to the SEC …
And 6.6 times is really lowballing it when it comes to some of these firms:
Lee Tillman, chief executive officer of Marathon Oil, told investors last month that the company was potentially sitting on the equivalent of 4.3 billion barrels in its U.S. shale acreage. That number was 5.5 times higher than the proved reserves Marathon reported to federal regulators. Such discrepancies are rife in the U.S. shale industry. Drillers use bigger forecasts to sell the hydraulic fracturing boom to investors and to persuade lawmakers to lift the 39-year-old ban on crude exports.
62 of 73 U.S. shale drillers reported one estimate in mandatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission while citing higher potential figures to the public, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Pioneer’s estimate was 13 times higher. Goodrich’s was 19 times. For Rice Energy, it was almost 27-fold.
Denver-based Cimarex Energy is one company that doesn’t report a different number to investors than it does to the SEC. “We want to have things on the books that are part of our near-term drilling plans,” Karen Acierno, a Cimarex spokeswoman, said in an interview. “A lot of people appreciate our conservative nature, a lot of investors.” Cimarex shares are up 19% in the past year.
The investor presentation by Rice Energy shows 2.7 billion barrels. Rice, which went public in January, reported 100 million barrels to the SEC in March, records show. At Pioneer Natural Resources, the number they cite to potential investors has increased by 2 billion barrels a year in each of the last five years – even as the proved reserves it files with the SEC have declined. The rising number is “a game changer for this company,” said Sheffield, the CEO. “It’s a game changer for this country.”
No kidding, there, Mr. CEO.
Investors poured $16.3 billion in the first seven months of the year into mutual funds and exchange-traded funds focused on energy companies, including drillers that create fractures in rocks by injecting fluid into cracks to enable more oil and gas to flow out of the formation. That’s almost twice as much as in the same period last year, bringing total assets to $128.2 billion, according to New York-based Strategic Insight. [..]
Lee, the University of Houston professor, said in an interview that he’s alarmed by the inconsistent and overly optimistic estimates published by shale companies. “If a lot of people get burned – and I think a lot of people can and will be burned – by these numbers in the investor presentations, there may be a push by investors to get the SEC to do something about it … ”
Horse, meet barn. The SEC won’t do anything, and it cannot change the law anyway, until these companies are dead broke and their owners longer liable for anything at all.
The US shale industry presents itself to investors as something it is not: it hugely overestimates its reserves, it carries incredible amounts of debt, there is cash flow but it doesn’t even begin to cover expenses, and its wells, which cost $8-20 million a piece to drill, even on average deplete faster than you can say ‘Christmas next year’.
Meanwhile, politics and media sing the Hossanah of energy independence, which in turn makes oil and gas prices slump to such a degree that shale becomes even less viable than it -obviously to us – already is. But as long as you’re legally allowed to overstate your reserves 27-fold, you can squeeze this balloon for another year or so, right.
It all makes me think that if people don’t see through this nonsense, they get what they deserve and perhaps need in life. But as always, it’s the little people who will end up paying up. And I don’t like that one bit. And if this is what America has become, a giant Ponzi, someone should raise their voice before it gets completely out of hand. If this kind of spiel is legal, there’s something deeply wrong with the law.
I could say much more about this, and I have, but it’s probably better if for more, you refer to for instance these past Automatic Earth articles on shale: