America’s energy independence was an illusion created by cheap debt. All that’s left to tally is the damage.
Ever since the oil shocks of the 1970s, the idea of energy independence, which in its grandest incarnation meant freedom from the world’s oil-rich trouble spots, has been a dream for Democrats and Republicans alike. It once seemed utterly unattainable — until the advent of fracking, which unleashed a torrent of oil. By early 2019, America was the world’s largest producer of crude oil, surpassing both Saudi Arabia and Russia. And President Trump reveled in the rhetoric: We hadn’t merely achieved independence, his administration said, but rather “energy dominance.”
Then came Covid-19, and, on March 8, the sudden and vicious end to the truce between Saudi Arabia and Russia, under which both countries limited production to prop up prices. On March 9, the price of oil plunged by almost a third, its steepest one-day drop in almost 30 years.
As a result, the stocks that make up the S.&P. 500 energy sector fell 20 percent, marking the sector’s largest drop on record. There were rumblings that shale companies would seek a federal lifeline. Whiting Petroleum, whose stock once traded for $150 a share, filed for bankruptcy. Tens of thousands of Texans are being laid off in the Permian Basin and other parts of the state, and the whole industry is bracing for worse.
On the surface, it appears that two unforeseeable and random shocks are threatening our dream.
In reality, the dream was always an illusion, and its collapse was already underway. That’s because oil fracking has never been financially viable. America’s energy independence was built on an industry that is the very definition of dependent — dependent on investors to keeping pouring billions upon billions in capital into money-losing companies to fund their drilling. Investors were willing to do this only as long as oil prices, which are not under America’s control, were high — and when they believed that one day, profits would materialize.
Even before the coronavirus crisis, the spigot was drying up. Now, it has been shut off.
The industry’s lack of profits wasn’t exactly a secret. In early 2015, the hedge fund manager David Einhorn announced at an investment conference that he had looked at the financial statements of 16 publicly traded shale producers and found that from 2006 to 2014, they spent $80 billion more than they received from selling oil. The basic reason is that the amount of oil coming out of a fracked well declines steeply after the first year — more than 50 percent in year two. To keep growing, companies have to keep plowing billions back into the ground.
The industry’s boosters argue that technological gains, such as drilling ever bigger wells, and clustering wells more tightly together to reduce the cost of moving equipment, eventually would lead to a gusher of profits. Fracking, they said, was just manufacturing, in which process and human intelligence could reduce costs and conquer geology.
Actually, no. The key issue is the “parent child problem.” When wells are clustered tightly together, with so-called child wells drilled around the parent, the wells interfere with one another, resulting in less oil, not more. (This may not surprise anyone who is attempting to be productive while working in close quarters with their children.)
The promised profits haven’t materialized. In the first half of 2019, when oil was around $55 a barrel, only a few top-tier companies were profitable. “By now, it should be abundantly clear that the current shale oil business model does not work — even for the very best companies in the industry,” the investment firm SailingStone Capital Partners explained in a recent note.
Policymakers who wanted to tout energy independence disregarded all this, even as investors were starting to lose patience. As early as 2018, some investors had begun to tell companies that they wanted to see free cash flow, and that they were tired of compensation models that rewarded executives with rich paydays for increasing production, but failed to take profits into account. As a result, fracking stocks badly underperformed the market.
But with super-low interest rates, investors in search of yield were still willing to buy debt. Over the past 10 years, the entire energy industry has issued over $400 billion in high-yield debt. “They subprimed the American energy ecosystem,” says a longtime energy market observer.
Even as the public equity and debt markets grew cautious, drilling continued. That’s because one big source of funding didn’t dry up: private equity. And why not? Private equity financiers typically get a 2 percent management fee on funds they can raise, so they are incentivized to take all the money that pension funds, desperate for returns to shore up their promises to retirees, have been willing to give them.
In the Haynesville and the Utica Shales, two major natural gas plays, over half of the drilling is being done by private equity-backed companies; in the oil-rich Permian Basin, it’s about a quarter of the drilling. From 2015 through 2019, private equity firms raised almost $80 billion in funds focused mostly on shale production, according to Barclays.
Until the capital markets began to get suspicious, private equity investors could flip companies they had funded to larger, public companies, making a profitable exit regardless of whether or not the underlying business was making money.
That, too, is ending, as investors in such funds have become disillusioned.
You can see how all of this is playing out by looking at Occidental Petroleum. In 2019, Oxy, as it’s known, topped a competing bid from Chevron and paid $38 billion to take over Anadarko Petroleum, which is one of the major shale companies. Since that time, Oxy’s stock has plummeted almost 80 percent in part due to fears that the Anadarko acquisition is going to prove so wildly unprofitable that it sinks the company.
On March 10, the company announced that it would slash its dividend for the first time since the early 1990s, when Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait sent oil prices plummeting.
Occidental is just one piece of the puzzle. In April, the Energy Information Administration cut its forecast for U.S. oil production, estimating that it will fall both this year and next — suggesting that the days of huge growth in production from shale are over.
On March 10, Scott Sheffield, the chief executive of Pioneer Natural Resources, a major driller in the Permian Basin, told Bloomberg that U.S. oil output could fall by more than two million barrels per day by next year if prices remain where they are today.
“This is late ’80s bad,” a close observer of the industry says.
After the United States engaged in a high-stakes negotiation with Russia and Saudi Arabia to curtail production, a tentative deal was struck on Thursday. Certainly, President Trump, who has staked so much on the American shale industry, wants to save it. “We really need Trump to do something or he’s going to lose all the energy states in this election,” Mr. Sheffield told CNBC in late March.
A deal, and higher oil prices, might help the industry. But they won’t fix its fundamental problem with profitability. Energy independence was a fever dream, fed by cheap debt and frothy capital markets.
All that’s left to tally is the environmental and financial damage. In the five years ending in April, there were 215 bankruptcies for oil and gas companies, involving $130 billion in debt, according to the law firm Haynes and Boone. Moody’s, the rating agency, said that in the third quarter of 2019, 91 percent of defaulted U.S. corporate debt was due to oil and gas companies. And North American oil and gas drillers have almost $100 billion of debt that is set to mature in the next four years.
It’s still unclear where most of this debt is held. Some of it has been packaged into so-called collateralized loan obligations, pieces of which are held by hedge funds. Some of it may be on bank balance sheets. Investors in the equity of these companies have already seen the value of their holdings decimated. Pension funds that have poured money into private equity firms may take a hit soon, too. All we know for sure is that fracking company executives and private equity financiers have made a fortune by touting the myth of energy independence — and they won’t be the ones who have to pick up the pieces.
Vanity Fair’s Bethany McLean took a critical look at the fracking industry in America.