With financial stress setting in for U.S. shale companies, some are trying to drill their way out of the problem, while others are hoping to boost profitability by cutting costs and implementing spending restraint. Both approaches are riddled with risk.
“Turbulence and desperation are roiling the struggling fracking industry,” Kathy Hipple and Tom Sanzillo wrote in a note for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).
They point to the example of EQT, the largest natural gas producer in the United States. A corporate struggle over control of the company reached a conclusion recently, with the Toby and Derek Rice seizing power. The Rice brothers sold their company, Rice Energy, to EQT in 2017. But they launched a bid to take over EQT last year, arguing that the company’s leadership had failed investors. The Rice brothers convinced shareholders that they could steer the company in a better direction promising $500 million in free cash flow within two years.
Their bet hinged on more aggressive drilling while simultaneously reducing costs. Their strategy also depends on “new, unproven, expensive technology, electric frack fleets,” IEEFA argued. “This seems like more of the same – big risky capital expenditures.”
EQT’s former CEO Steve Schlotterbeck recently made headlines when he called fracking an “unmitigated disaster” because it helped crash prices and produce mountains of red ink.
“In fact, I'm not aware of another case of a disruptive technological change that has done so much harm to the industry that created the change,” Schlotterbeck said at an industry conference in June.
IEEFA draws a contrast between Schlotterbeck and the Rice brothers. While the latter wants advocates a strategy of stepping up drilling in an effort to grow their way out of the problem, the former argues that this approach has been tried over and over with poor results. Instead, Schlotterbeck said that drillers need to cut spending and production, which could revive natural gas prices.
But while the philosophies differ – relentless growth versus restraint – IEEFA argues that “neither of these strategies seem viable.” On the one hand, natural gas prices are expected to stay below $3 per MMBtu, a price that is unlikely to lead to profits, IEEFA says. That is especially true if shale companies aggressively spend and produce more gas.
However, a strategy of restraint may not work either.
“[E]ven if natural gas producers coordinate their activities and reduce supply—a highly unlikely prospect—Schlotterbeck’s expectation that natural gas prices would inevitably rise is questionable,” IEEFA analysts wrote.
There are few reasons why natural gas prices might not rebound. For instance, any increase in natural gas prices will only induce more renewable energy. Costs for solar, wind and even energy storage has plunged. For years, natural gas was the cheapest option, but that is no longer the case. Renewable energy increasingly beats out gas on price, which means that natural gas prices will run into resistance when they start to rise as demand would inevitably slow.
A second reason why prices might not rise is because public policy is beginning to really work against the gas industry. IEEFA pointed to the recent decision in New York to block the construction of Williams Co.’s pipeline that would have connected Appalachian gas to New York City. In fact, New York seems to be heading in a different direction, recently passing one of the most ambitious and comprehensive pieces of climate and energy bills in the nation. Or, look to Berkeley, California, which just became the first city in the country to ban the installation of natural gas lines in new homes. As public policy increasingly targets the demand side of the equation, natural gas prices face downward pressure.
Another complication for natural gas producers is that the petrochemical industry, which is attracting tens billions of dollars in investment due to the belief that natural gas will remain cheap in perpetuity. Gas producers, who want higher prices, are in conflict with petrochemical manufacturers, who need cheap feedstocks.
“Companies like Shell, which is considering a $6 billion petrochemical investment, must choose: absorb a higher price cost structure for natural gas liquids (NGLs) needed to produce its product, while facing stiff global competition in the petrochemical business. Or, intensify capital commitments and take over the fracking business, hoping to find synergies through integration,” IEEFA noted.
“Both of these scenarios change the risk profile Shell has described to justify its aggressive expansion plans in the Ohio Valley.”
The upshot is that while companies like EQT undertake a major shift in strategy, the road ahead remains rocky either way. “More bankruptcies are all but certain as oil and gas borrowers must repay or refinance several hundred billion dollars of debt over the next six months,” IEEFA concluded.