Opinion | Coronavirus May Kill Our Fracking Fever Dream

Opinion | Coronavirus May Kill Our Fracking Fever Dream


On March 10, the company announced that it would slash its dividend for the first time since 1990, 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.

The United States is now engaged in a high-stakes negotiation with Russia and Saudi Arabia to curtail production; 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.¶

Bethany McLean, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is the author of “Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World.”

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