Fracking in 2018: Another Year of Pretending to Make Money

Jerri-Lynn here. This is the latest installment in Justin Mikulka’s excellent series on the fracking beat, Finances of Fracking: Shale Industry Drills More Debt Than Profit. The industry lacks even the excuse of profit to justify the environmental costs it inflicts – yet  the mainstream media continue to swallow industry waffle. I’ve crossposted other articles in the series, and I encourage interested readers to look at them – the entire series is well worth your time.

By Justin Mikulka, a freelance writer, audio and video producer living in Trumansburg, NY. Originally published at DeSmog Blog

2018 was the year the oil and gas industry promised that its darling, the shale fracking revolution, would stop focusing on endless production and instead turn a profit for its investors. But as the year winds to a close, it’s clear that hasn’t happened.

Instead, the fracking industry has helped set new records for U.S. oil production while continuing to lose huge amounts of money — and that was before the recent crash in oil prices.

But plenty of people in the industry and media make it sound like a much different, and more profitable, story.

Broken Promises and Record Production

Going into this year, the fracking industry needed to prove it was a good investment (and not just for its CEOs, who are garnering massive paychecks).

In January, The Wall Street Journal touted the prospect of frackers finally making “real money … for the first time” this year. “Shale drillers are heeding growing calls from investors who have chastened the companies for pumping ever more oil and gas even as they incur losses doing so,” oil and energy reporter Bradley Olson wrote.

Olson’s story quoted an energy asset manager making the (always) ill-fated prediction about the oil and gas industry that this time will be different.

Is this time going to be different? I think yes, a little bit,” said energy asset manager Will Riley. “Companies will look to increase growth a little, but at a more moderate pace.”

Despite this early optimism, Bloomberg noted in February that even the Permian Basin — “America’s hottest oilfield” — faced “hidden pitfalls” that could “hamstring” the industry.

They were right. Those pitfalls turned out to be the ugly reality of the fracking industry’s finances.

And this time was not different.

On the edge of the Permian in New Mexico, The Albuquerque Journal reported the industry is “on pace this year to leap past last year’s record oil production,” according to Ryan Flynn, executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association. And yet that oil has at times been discounted as much as $20 a barrel compared to world oil prices because New Mexico doesn’t have the infrastructure to move all of it.

Who would be foolish enough to produce more oil than the existing infrastructure could handle in a year when the industry promised restraint and a focus on profits? New Mexico, for one. And North Dakota. And Texas.

In North Dakota, record oil production resulted in discounts of $15 per barrel and above due to infrastructure constraints.

Texas is experiencing a similar story. cites a Goldman Sachs prediction of discounts “around $19-$22 per [barrel]” for the fourth quarter of 2018 and through the first three quarters of next year.

Oil producers in fracking fields across the country seem to have resisted the urge to reign in production and instead produced record volumes of oil in 2018. In the process — much like the tar sands industry in Canada — they have created a situation where the market devalues their oil. Unsurprisingly, this is not a recipe for profits.

Shale Oil Industry ‘More Profitable Than Ever’ — Or Is It?

However, Reuters recently analyzed 32 fracking companies and declared that “U.S. shale firms are more profitable than ever after a strong third quarter.” How is this possible?

Reading a bit further reveals what Reuters considers “profits.”

“The group’s cash flow deficit has narrowed to $945 million as U.S.benchmark crude hit $70 a barrel and production soared,” reported Reuters.

So, “more profitable than ever” means that those 32 companies are running a deficit of nearly $1 billion. That does not meet the accepted definition of profit.

A separate analysis released earlier this month by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis and The Sightline Institute also reviewed 32 companies in the fracking industry and reached the same conclusion: “The 32 mid-size U.S.exploration companies included in this review reported nearly $1 billion in negative cash flows through September.”

The numbers don’t lie. Despite the highest oil prices in years and record amounts of oil production, the fracking industry continued to spend more than it made in 2018. And somehow, smaller industry losses can still be interpreted as being “more profitable than ever.”

The Fracking Industry’s Fuzzy Math

One practice the fracking industry uses to obfuscate its long money-losing streak is to change the goal posts for what it means to be profitable. The Wall Street Journal recently highlighted this practice, writing: “Claims of low ‘break-even’ prices for shale drilling hardly square with frackers’ bottom lines.”

The industry likes to talk about low “break-even” numbers and how individual wells are profitable — but somehow the companies themselves keep losing money. This can lead to statements like this one from Chris Duncan, an energy analyst at Brandes Investment Partners:

“You always scratch your head as to how they can have these well economics that can have double-digit returns on investment, but it never flows through to the total company return.”

Head-scratching, indeed.

The explanation is pretty simple: Shale companies are not counting many of their operating expenses in the “break-even” calculations. Convenient for them, but highly misleading about the economics of fracking because factoring in the costs of running one of these companies often leads those so-called profits from the black and into the red.

The Wall Street Journal explains the flaw in the fracking industry’s questionable break-even claims: “break-evens generally exclude such key costs as land, overhead and even at times transportation.”

Other tricks, The Wall Street Journal notes, include companies only claiming the break-even prices of their most profitable land (known in the industry as “sweet spots”) or using artificially low costs for drilling contractors and oil service companies.

While the mystery of fracking industry finances appears to be solved, the mystery of why oil companies are allowed to make such misleading claims remains.

Wall Street Continues to Fund an Unsustainable Business Model

Why does the fracking industry continue to receive more investments from Wall Street despite breaking its “promises” this year?

Because that is how Wall Street makes money. Whether fracking companies are profitable or not doesn’t really matter to Wall Street executives who are getting rich making the loans that the fracking industry struggles to repay.

An excellent example of this is the risk that rising interest rates pose to the fracking industry. Even shale companies that have made profits occasionally have done so while also amassing large debts. As interest rates rise, those companies will have to borrow at higher rates, which increases operating costs and decreases the likelihood that shale companies losing cash will ever pay back that debt.

Continental Resources, one of the largest fracking companies, is often touted as an excellent investment. Investor’s Business Daily recently noted that “[w]ithin the Oil& Gas-U.S.Exploration & Production industry, Continental is the fourth-ranked stock with a strong 98 out of a highest-possible 99 [Investor’s Business Daily] Composite Rating.”

And yet when Simply Wall St. analyzed the company’s ability to pay back its over $6 billion in debt, the stockmarket news site concluded that Continental isn’t well positioned to repay that debt. However, it noted “[t]he sheer size of Continental Resources means it is unlikely to default or announce bankruptcy anytime soon.” For frackers, being at the top of the industry apparently means being too big to fail.

As interest rates rise, common sense might suggest that Wall Street would rein in its lending to shale companies. But when has common sense applied to Wall Street?

Even the Houston Chronicle, a major paper near the center of the fracking boom, recently asked, “How long can the fracking spending spree last?”

The Chronicle notes the epic money-losing streak for the industry and how fracking bankruptcies have already ended up “stiffing lenders and investors on more than $70 billion in outstanding loans.”

So, is the party over?

Not according to Katherine Spector, a research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. She explains how Wall Street will reconcile investing in these fracking firms during a period of higher interest rates: “Banks are going to make more money [through higher interest rates], so they’re going to want to get more money out the door.”

Follow the DeSmog investigative series: Finances of Fracking: Shale Industry Drills More Debt Than Profit

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  1. Harry

    Some points.

    1. The Sightline Institute methodology had 33 cos. Not 32. I would bet the Reuters reporter took out one company out from the analysis. Bear in mind XOP has 72 or so companies so there is a lot of scope for cherry picking there too.

    2. What bank wants to run an oil company? The banks lent to a sector which conned them. I guess rates were too low for too long. Those loans/bonds are only recoverable if oil prices are high. The oil men know they are long a massive call option, and you can’t take it off them. They can’t get new money so they won’t give back the old.

    3. Diamondback and maybe 8 others make money. Infrastructure in the right place and good geologies.

    4. The numbers are unfair to Andarko cos the cut off misses a bunch of cash coming back in q3

    Still, a well timed piece

      1. Pym of Nantucket

        Remember Enron? We’re clearly not smart enough to understand the genius of how this is profitable. I guess we should just step aside and watch the smart guys spin straw into gold. I’m sure they will share the wealth with the land owners…right?

          1. Harry

            These oil men are not stupid. They like to get their DUCs in a row – wells drilled but uncompleted. If oil goes up enough they can open the DUCs in less than 2 months. Its the weakly capitalized ones who will pump oil out of a reservoir with low oil prices to service debt. Also by drilling they often validate a lease which would void if they didnt drill. However by not pumping they dont have to pay any royalties – just rents.

            Below $50 on WTI a lot of the sector doesn’t generate enough cashflow to meet investment plans.

    1. rd

      I think a lot of the funding is with junk bonds. So most of those bonds are sold to investors, including ETFs, mutual funds, and pension funds. Many of the banks are just middlemen and will probably not be left holding too much of the bag if they haven’t kept them on their own books or written lots of stupid derivatives on them.

      This should be a much smaller sector than the housing sector so a sub-prime mortgage bond-like crash shouldn’t have the impact of 2008. But who knows, the main thing aI marvel about with the financial sector is their unerring ability to take something that should be relatively safe, weaponize it, and threaten global financial stability with it.

  2. Wukchumni

    I’ve watched in horror from a distance in regards to fracking, and then a few days ago, this planning area map for open hydraulic fracking leases has me surrounded in a sea of red…

    We’re on a fractured rock aquifer in the foothills here that’s separate from the one on the valley floor, and because it gets scant use in Ag, and not many people live here (we’re 2.5x as big as Paradise,Ca. in size, with 1/10th of the population and at a similar altitude) nobody’s hard rock wells had any issues with going dry during the lengthy drought and having to drill hundreds if not a thousand feet deeper in search of H20, as was occurring to the farmers et al on the fruited plain.

    I sure don’t like the idea of a fractured rock aquifer and fracking…

    One thing going against us, is land is cheap here, it’s nature acres, nice to look at. but no development potential, as the trees are all in the way, and what sorry sap is going to cut down oaks a couple hundred old and level the hills to put in tiny boxes?

    That villain doesn’t exist, luckily.

    But if you were to dangle large amounts of money at the owners of such low value acres, in oil leases?

    And the idea it was all a circle jerk by Wall*Street & Big Oil, to get the money!
    Makes it even harder to swallow…

    1. RBHoughton

      Its not just the environmental damage. Banks lending to frackers will be precedent creditors. They’ll keep loaning until whatever value in the company that can be extracted in extremis has been used up. One can easily imagine the sort of accounting Wall Street uses.

  3. SittingStill

    So when these companies finally go bust, faced with the diminishment of oil production, will US taxpayers be forced to bail out the industry because of the economic/national security implications of the prospects of eviscerated US oil production volumes? If so, Wall Street wins yet again.

    1. Pym of Nantucket

      A gigantic hidden cost is the liabilities associated with the resulting abandoned wells. This is why this fall there was a Supreme Court challenge in Canada to a ruling on who gets paid first in such cases. In Canada the reclamation costs fall to the remaining producers who share costs of the Orphan Well Association. In the US, it is completely off the books, and therefore falls to the government to clean up abandoned plays when companies go bust.

      So, taxpayers could be on the hook both if there is a government bailout on bad loans, a al 2008/2009, AND will have to pay to clean this up (it’s expensive, by the way, there are thousands and thousands of these sites that need to be remediated). I suspect the reason all this is happening is a strategic effort to use tax payer backstopped risk to punish Russia to daring to exist.

      1. rd

        This is similar to mines and old waste dumps. If the owners were limited partnerships or companies that went bankrupt with no remaining solvent pieces, then there is no money in the kitty to clean them up. The remaining game in town then is Superfund and state programs for inactive hazardous waste sites and orphan wells.

        The RCRA Subtitle C and D regulations in the 1980s and early 90s required landfill operators to set aside funds in lock-boxes so that if they went bankrupt, the state could access those funds to close the landfills. The landfills typically charge a fee per ton just to fund these financial assurance accounts and they need to keep them on file with the states. Unfortunately, the resource extraction industry has generally been able to successfully fight against these types of requirements as “job-killers”.

  4. jackiebass

    One economic problem with fracked gas wells is they only produce large quantities of gas for a short time. It’s usually 2 to 3 years. After that production tanks. I suspect a similar thing happens with fracked oil wells. I I’ve in NY close to the PA boarder. For about 4 years, fracking was really booming. Now it has almost stopped. You see big lots filled with fracking equipment gathering rust. It didn’t take most people long to realize that only a few made money while the rest pay the bill for all of the damage done. I’m glad in NY state they banned fracking. I own 50 acres and refused to buy into a leasing deal before fracking was banned. My biggest concern was my well water becoming contaminated as well as losing control over how my land is used. A big problem is that a company is allowed to drill under your land even if you don’t have a lease agreement with them. They have to pay you but they can also pollute your well. If that happens your property becomes of no value and useless.

    1. SimonGirty

      We’d become curious about folks moving to the NE tip of PA, as it looked like NJT might actually reopen rail service to all those $80-$140K houses, right before Williams/ Transco’s Constitution Pipeline finally caused hundreds of new fracked wells? We’d guessed the only effect of the ’16 election was who’d be prodding retirees into GasLand Poconos. Seems like a great location for a remake of Green Acres meets Deliverance?
      Looks like there’s a mess of unwatchable YouTube videos. I wonder if refugees have any idea of what could happen up there?

  5. ape

    Yes, when liquidity has a much smaller time constant then actual production, the rules of liquidity will decouple from the production and actually dominate the process.

    This is well-known from physics, and why many economic theories are obviously and fundamentally wrong.

    As long as the economy is financialized with almost infinite velocity, nothing in the real world (including profits) will actually drive the system. This is trivially obvious.

  6. Olga

    And yet, Far West Texas is booming – not sure what to make of it all. And – as in ‘irony’ – some of that boom is powered by wind.

  7. d

    This kind of thing makes me chuckle. So the CEOs and other suits at the fracking companies are scamming their investors to enrich themselves. Hard to feel bad about it (even though a fair number of the investors are probably “institutional”) if it wasn’t for the needless environmental destruction that goes along with these two groups of elites ripping each other off.

  8. Phemfrog

    Very broadly speaking, wouldn’t this be a good real-world example of MMT? There is a natural resource we want to extract, we have the manpower and machinery to do it, so we just do it? The money to fund it is limitless…bound only by the constraints of the resource itself. Wall street is just a rent-extracting intermediary…

    Am I off base here?

    1. John k

      Mmt cab be used to fund war or any other negative thing. Or build schools and hospitals.
      One can be rational or irrational.

  9. a different chris

    It’s ironic that, having lived thru the 80’s when the financial “geniuses” took over and it was all about ROI – Westinghouse somehow came to the conclusion that you could make 6% on golf courses (they didn’t even know, I don’t think) instead of 2% on industrials (that was probably correct) so they basically sold the store. Except for the nukes, sigh.

    The comments above, apes’s for instance, point to the whole slosh of money. And there is some truth to that. But in this case, I’m afraid much of the answer is that people in the oil bidness make oil wells because that’s what they know how to do. ROI, Scmoi O I.

    Of all the industries that are gone because they weren’t allowed to “do what they know” because it was “cheaper to offshore” – read a greater ROI to Wall Street – how come the worst is the only one that keeps its nose to the grindstone and does the actual work it knows how to do?

    1. Seamus Padraig

      Because you have to drill where the oil/gas is actually located. You can’t do it in China, where the labor would be cheaper.

      1. a different chris

        No, what I meant was those other ones just “diversified” or whatever the word of the moment was, just did whatever made the people at the top money.

        But oil/gas is different. They just “have to go get it”. It’s like termites and wood. I respect that, even if it’s the wrong thing to do. If I must refer to The Terminator again, “it’s what they do. It’s ALL they do”.

        PS: there is oil/gas everywhere. I worked in the “bidness,”btw.

  10. Andrew John

    So frackers can take out billions of unpayable debt and discharge it in bankruptcy, but I get to carry a millstone of student debt around my neck for the rest of my life? Great system we got here. Pretty flipping great.

    1. Ford Prefect

      You should have issued a junk bond on yourself instead of taking a student loan. You could then just default on the junk bond (after having written some derivatives to short it to profit from your financial demise).

  11. Mike R.

    I have a different take on all this fracking.
    I believe it was decided at the highest levels of our government to support it; including financially if necessary. The basis for this support and secrecy would be national security. Easy enough to see how this could have transpired.

    All that said, if my theory is correct, the frackers will be bailed in some form or fashion. Probably the next QE will pick up the tab or perhaps the DOD is funding it indirectly already.

    Just a theory, no pressure.

    1. steven

      Your take parallels Pym of Nantucket’s. Ever since the end of WWII, the United States has been allowed to just ‘print money’, first to pay for its contest with the former Soviet Union for global hegemony and then to ‘pay for’ its energy and the products its industries could no longer profitably produce – at least as profitably as they could by off-shoring those industries. This is all really just an extension of ‘petrodollar warfare’ – gigantic bluff the US can continue to go it alone if necessary – having salted the central banks of ‘developing countries’ with all the ‘reserve currencies’ they realistically need, at least if the depredations of the likes of George Soros are held in check.

      In summary, fracked oil is propping up not just Big Oil but the US military industrial complex and ultimately Wall Street and its banks. As long as the US can control the world’s access to energy (and possibly retard its transition to renewable sources?), US politicians and bankers can continue to ‘print money’ (i.e. export debt) and sustain the whole rotten edifice of US and Western ‘political economy’.

      As usual Michael Hudson has it right:

      “Finance is the new form of warfare – without the expense of a military overhead and an occupation against unwilling hosts.” It is a competition in credit creation to buy foreign resources, real estate, public and privatized infrastructure, bonds and corporate stock ownership. Who needs an army when you can obtain the usual objective (monetary wealth and asset appropriation) simply by financial means?

      Why the U.S. has Launched a New Financial World War — And How the the Rest of the World Will Fight Back

      1. greg

        The time will come, as a result of this, that the US will have to go it alone. They are turning your money to shit. Unless our corporate masters sell out the rest of the country to foreigners, like they already have much of our nation’s productive capital.We won’t be alone, but like Greece, we will no longer be independent or free.

        This kind of crap increasingly pervades our economy. Military. Finance. Healthcare. Like money with Gresham’s Law, bad investment drives out good. Every cost is also someone’s profit opportunity, so costs are magnifying and spinning out of control. More and more the welfare of society depends on ‘borrowed’ money.

        It’s like the modern day pyramids. Nicely dressed piles of rocks in the desert. Total waste and destruction of resources. It also destroyed the social capital of Ancient Egypt, and turned them into slaves of Pharoah. It was the people of Egypt who paid for the pyramids, with their labor and their liberties.

        So that’s what else is going on. Your freedoms are going down those wells. And up the towers of finance. The Egyptians, at least, got something to look at. They already had the barren wastelands.

  12. Cynthia

    At least these depressed oil prices from over fracking in the US will make Saudi Arabia poorer. Possibly poorer to the point that widespread social unrest ensues there, leading to the dethroning of the House Of Saud, which, in turn, will cause the dethroning of their chief covert friend and ally Israel.

    Then in order to stave off social unrest here in the US, we’ll have to cut off ties with these two roguish troublemakers in the region. Much needed balance of power will then be restored to the region with Iran and Syria restored to their former glory, sparking peace and prosperity from Pakistan and Afghanistan to Egypt, Somalia and Yemen.

    I don’t know if the pieces on the chessboard will ever realign this way, but it’s rather amusing to speculate that this realignment could possibly be triggered by the stupidity and shortsightedness of the US to over frack!

    1. Nick Stokes

      You got it backwards. KSA and Russia need lower oil prices to force US producers off the field and get their supply chains back. Your thinking like a 1970’s person. Think 2010’s.

      1. rd

        This is a non-climate change reason why developing electric vehicles in North America, Europe, and China would be good. It would strip away much of the demand for oil which is a major funding source for Russia and KSA.

    2. Gene Prodersky

      Your thinking 20th century. KSA and Russia need lower prices to support their supply chain. Everything you said, think the opposite.

  13. whiteylockmandoubled

    Jesus Herbert Walker Christ. Is anyone else getting sick of this stupid series? If you keep writing the same article every year, and Wall Street keeps engaging in the same apparently irrational behavior, you might want to rethink your smug pose and ask yourself whether there might be some additional digging to do to understand what the hell is going on.

    The contrast between this series and Hubert Horan’s Uber work is striking. Horan not only points out the fact that Uber is unprofitable, but also clearly shows who has an interest in extending the hype, and how and why the bandwagon keeps rolling. This series is the complete opposite.

    Fracking “investors” aren’t getting ripped off, and they’re not stupid. You’ve just completely missed half the point of the Master LImited Partnership structure. For the limited partners, the losses are a feature, not a bug. Until MLP shares are cashed in, they generate tax losses for the LPs. Those losses are valuable generally, but 501c3s, especially love them because they allow non-profits to offset Unrelated Business Income.

    Go to Guidestar or Nonprofit Explorer and pull down the 990T of any nonprofit with a few billion dollars worth of invested assets. Line 5 (usually blank but filled in as a long attachment at the end) is almost invariably a who’s who of the fracking industry, with thousands of dollars in losses from each company. In any given year, LPs only liquidate positions in a small number of the companies their holding each year, allowing them to avoid taxes with the annual losses, then cash in (at least sometimes) when the value of the company is high.

    The industry’s a scam, but just as much of the taxpayers as of the investors.

    1. Yves Smith

      Do you make a habit of putting your foot in your mouth and chewing? Because you did it here, by copping a ‘tude while being 100% wrong.

      Passive tax exempt investors have no use for losses. Zero. Zip. Nada.

      An investor in a limited partnership is a passive investor. Income from a passive investment NEVER generates Unrelated Business Income. If the idiocy you presented was correct, no endowment or public pension fund could ever show a net profit from their investments in private equity and hedge funds without it being taxed as UBI. There would literally be no private equity industry as we know it because most of its money comes from tax exempt investors, namely public pension funds, endowments, foundations, private pension funds.

      UBI results from activity conducted by the not for profit. The classic example is an art museum’s gift shop. See IRS Publication 598 (emphasis ours):

      Unrelated business income is the income from a trade or business regularly conducted by an exempt organization and not substantially related to the performance by the organization of its exempt purpose or function, except that the organization uses the profits derived from this activity.

      Limited partners are required to be passive and have nada to do with the operation of the partnership. They typically make double sure that their investment income won’t be characterized as business income. As one tax expert confirmed by e-mail:

      Endowments/exempts/pension funds can wind up having UBTI when they don’t structure their investments through corporations. They rarely fail to do this structuring. They wouldn’t put themselves in the position of deliberately incur UBTI and then go hunting for losses to offset it.

      So it is possible that you heard of a not-very-competent endowment that wound up seeking tax losses, but that would be highly unusual, when you incorrectly said the opposite.

      There are other tells that you don’t even remotely understand the how limited partnerships work, such as your comment “In any given year, LPs only liquidate positions in a small number of the companies their holding each year, allowing them to avoid taxes with the annual losses.”

      Limited partnerships are pass-through entities. LPs receive their pro-rata share of income and loss annually. They do not need to sell to recognize gains or losses resulting from their participation in operations.

      The mainstream journalist who first wrote about the pervasiveness of losses in fracking after oil prices started trading in the new normal of $70 a barrel and below, John Dizard of the Financial Times, explained why frackers would keep drilling at losses as long as they could get their hands on funding, so this is entirely consistent with his forecast. And Dizard’s column is for wealthy individuals and he is conversant with tax issues, unlike you.

      Better trolls, please.

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