Is The Shale Boom Built On A Sea Of Lies?

As Fracking Enters A Bear Market, A Question Emerges: Is The Shale Boom Built On A Sea Of Lies?

Tyler Durden's picture

One of, if not the biggest contributors to the improving US trade deficit and thus GDP (not to mention labor market in select states) over the past several years, has been the shale revolution taking place on US soil, which has led to unthinkable: the US is now the biggest producer of oil in the world, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia. Which is great today, but what about tomorrow?

It is here that problems emerge according to Bloomberg’s snapshot of the shale industry. In “We‘re Sitting on 10 Billion Barrels of Oil! OK, Two“, the authors look at the two-tiers of reporting when it comes to deposits that America’s fracking corporations allegedly sit on, and find something unpleasant:

Lee Tillman, chief executive officer of Marathon Oil Corp., 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. Sixty-two 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 Natural Resources (PXD) Co.’s estimate was 13 times higher. Goodrich Petroleum Corp.’s was 19 times. For Rice Energy Inc., it was almost 27-fold.

Fracking 101: “Predicting how much oil can be pumped out of shale has been controversial since the boom began about a decade ago. Companies combined horizontal drilling with fracking, or hydraulic fracturing. Fracking involves blasting water, sand and chemicals into deep underground layers of shale rock to free hydrocarbons. Innovators such as Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK) said that drilling vast expanses of oil-soaked rock formations is more predictable than the traditional, straight-down method of exploration. Regulators agreed and requirements were loosened starting in 2010.”

Furthermore, as tech companies have non-GAAP to hide all the nasty “expense” stuff, energy companies rely on probable and possible.

Energy companies also lobbied the SEC to let them file more speculative estimates, known as probable reserves and possible reserves. Only three companies take that option, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The rest report only proved reserves to the SEC and save their other estimates for public presentations, which the SEC doesn’t supervise.

Now the discrepancy between the two estimation methodologies is hardly new: every serious investors in the E&P space has known about the two-tier bookkeeping system for years. The problem, however, is well laid out by John Lee, one of University of Houston petroleum engineering professors for hire: “They’re running a great risk of litigation when they don’t end up producing anything like that. If I were an ambulance-chasing lawyer, I’d get into this.”

The reason why no ambulances were chased for the past 6 years, ever since the shale boom truly took off, is that this roughly corresponds to the time when the Fed unleashed its QE on the world, and boosted stock prices to record levels across the board, including those of shale plays. As a result, since fracking investors saw their stocks also rise to record highs, they had no reason for complain, even if the surge in market cap may have had little to do with the actual underlying fundamentals, among which level of reserves, and everything to do with a very different type of liquidity, that emerging from the Fed’s printer.

But now things are rapidly changing, the commodity space is getting, pun intended, fracked, E&P companies across the board are sliding, and as of today, the shale space just entered a bear market.

And since investors take to losses with far less enthusiasm and stoic patience than paper profits, artificial as they may have been, they will soon start looking for scapegoats. They will find these were right in front of their eyes. To wit:

Additionally, here is what the abovementioned ambulance chasers will be closely looking at in the coming weeks and months unless the shale stock plunge doesn’t reverse quickly.

Marathon’s Tillman, who was speaking at the Barclays Plc CEO Energy-Power Conference in New York on Sept. 3, said there are “risk and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from those expressed or implied by” his comments. Many company presentations remind investors that publicly announced estimates are more speculative than the numbers the drillers file with the SEC.

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,” said Lisa Singhania, a Marathon spokeswoman. The Houston-based company’s shares have risen 1.6 percent in the last year.

The SEC requires drillers to provide an annual accounting of how much oil and gas their properties will produce, a measurement called proved reserves, and company executives must certify that the reports are accurate.

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 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The result is a case for U.S. energy self-sufficiency that’s based more on hope than fact.

The SEC is keeping mum, realizing very well that it is suddenly sitting on the next powder keg:

Judy Burns, a spokeswoman for the SEC, declined to comment on what drillers say during investor presentations.

And this is where companies have gotten into hot water:

Many of the 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, the data compiled by Bloomberg News show.

This is the E&P equivalent of annualized, pro-forma, adjusted EBITDA, a metric that is fully made up on the spot to exclude anything and everything and make the subject look more attractive. In other words, lipstick on a pig. 

It is also known as the “Bill Gross effect”: everything was great as long as he was making money. And then things all hell broke loose.

More:

Several companies, including Sanchez Energy Corp. (SN), don’t provide a total estimate. Instead, they publish variables such as the number of well locations and the estimated output from each one. Analysts often use these figures to independently compute the total. Even though Sanchez Energy provides the variables for analysts to calculate its resource potential, the Houston-based company doesn’t publish a total estimate. Executives debated whether to include one and decided against it, said Gleeson Van Riet, senior vice president for capital markets and investor relations.

In practical terms, the discrepancies are quite glaring:

The investor presentation by Canonsburg, Pennsylvania-based 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.”

Curiously, just like in the great Herbalife soa opera, the politicians are involved for one simple reason: they can collect lots of money to give their stamp of approval even if they really have no understanding or idea what they are vouching for.

Pioneer’s numbers aren’t misleading; they’re conservative, Sheffield said. He said he’s shared them with Senators Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the Democratic chair and Republican ranking member, respectively, of the Senate energy committee.

“Obviously it’s helped us in regard to making headway on convincing people to lift the export ban,” Sheffield said. “We want to convince them that we have this great resource. We don’t want it trapped here in the U.S. That’s for the public, the administration and Congress. So if we’ve got this great resource, why don’t you allow us to export it?”

The message is getting through. While Landrieu said she favors more study, Murkowski said she supports ending the ban.

The one message that is not getting through, however, is that no matter if Obama endorses one reserve estimation metric or another, if and when the P&L crash comes, nobody will be able to stop the onslaught of lawsuits that will immediately hone in on the weakest link, which in this case is clearly the ambiguous and two-tiered public data.

Some are already getting a sense of which way the wind is blowing:

In August, Lee led a workshop in Houston on the best practices of reserves estimation. The audience in the ballroom of the Hotel Derek included engineers for shale drillers such as Marathon, Continental and Rice. Pamela Allen, a senior reserves coordinator for Marathon, raised her hand and told Lee that she was worried that using outsized forecasts in public presentations would run afoul of the SEC and “come back to haunt us.”

Singhania, the Marathon spokeswoman, said she was unable to comment on Allen’s remarks without seeing a transcript.

“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,” Lee said during the workshop.

Actually, considering the gross incompetence of the SEC, the corrupt, co-opted regulator (for hire) may do something… in just about a decade. In the meantime, the most vibrant US industry may go from boom to bust in a heartbeat, as soon as its is mired in litigation once shareholders realize that the stock gains of the past half-decade will not continue in perpetuity. One look at the shale index chart above and the alarm bells should be going off.

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