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Shale industry braces for bankruptcies as energy demands fall amid coronavirus

An oil field near Bakersfield, part of California's natural-gas-rich Monterey Shale formation.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The biggest independent shale oil groups in the U.S. reported a record combined loss of $26 billion in the first quarter as the sector braces itself for a wave of bankruptcies over the next two years.

The collapse in crude demand brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic forced more than $38 billion in write-offs among top producers, according to analysis by Rystad Energy, sending net losses tumbling well below an average of $2.9 billion in the last six years.

U.S. energy groups have been caught in the eye of the storm as lockdowns aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19 slashed energy demand and crashed the oil market.

The sweeping impairments reported by the 39 publicly listed U.S. shale oil producers analyzed by Rystad — which exclude majors and gas-focused companies — underline the pressure being faced by the industry as a result of the pandemic.

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“The bottom line is there is going to be a wave of bankruptcies and restructurings,” said Regina Mayor, global head of energy at KPMG.

Analysts predict 250 companies could go bust before the end of next year unless oil prices rise fast enough to start generating cash for producers wilting under punishing debt loads.

A recent rally has taken the price of West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. marker, back above $30 a barrel, having traded in negative territory last month. But it remains down by half since January — and well beneath average break-even oil prices in the shale patch — leaving many more producers teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

“I don’t think $30 oil saves a lot of those producers who are sitting in the emergency room on a gurney waiting on a heart transplant,” said Buddy Clark, a lawyer at Haynes & Boone in Houston. “There are more bankruptcies to come.”

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Already 17 smaller U.S. oil and gas producers, with total debt of around $14 billion, have filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy this year, according to data from Haynes & Boone.

Analysts at Rystad estimate the total could rise to 73 before the year is out. An additional 170 would follow next year if prices remain around current levels.

The shale boom has doubled American oil output since 2008, and crude exports have surged, allowing President Trump to boast of U.S. “energy independence.”

But a model in which producers rely heavily on borrowed money while delivering meager returns has caused investor patience to wear thin. The industry was already struggling to generate cash and hold on to investor support in 2019 when West Texas Intermediate averaged $57 a barrel.

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Now, with West Texas Intermediate down by about half this year and with little access to financing, the pandemic and oil-price crash it caused are set to accelerate defaults, according to rating firm Fitch.

“They were in trouble before COVID even happened,” said John Kempf, senior director at Fitch. “There are a couple of pretty big names that are probably going to file for bankruptcy pretty soon.”

The amount of bonds outstanding in the U.S. high-yield energy sector increased from $68 billion to $108 billion this year as a handful of big names, including Cenovus Energy, Occidental Petroleum and Apache, became “fallen angels,” sliding from investment grade into junk territory, according to Fitch.

Energy companies make up 58% of the rating company’s list of the most concerning U.S. issuers in the high-yield market. It expects a default rate of 17% in high-yield energy bonds by the end of the year — roughly on par with the level at the worst point of the last downturn in 2016.

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The distress in the sector led to calls for widespread intervention from Washington, with a push for tariffs on imported crude, efforts by a Texas regulator to force oil producers to cut output and calls for federally backed relief packages to be extended to energy producers.

Rising prices in recent weeks — as companies cut supply and lockdowns ease — have lessened the clamor from producers for government support. The president hailed the rise in prices this week in a tweet: “Oil (energy) is back!” he wrote.

Still, the pace of bankruptcies is about to pick up, say those involved in the process.

Ken Coleman, head of U.S. restructuring at law firm Allen & Overy, said the filings are only getting started, with a wave of bankruptcies coming this summer. “The question is going to be how long it lasts.”

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