Shale oil business in trouble waters as firms file for bankruptcy

Bankruptcy filings by U.S. energy producers so far this year have already nearly matched the total for the whole of 2018, law firm Haynes & Boone reported on Wednesday, as volatile oil and gas prices drive companies to seek protection from creditors.

A total of 26 firms with debts totalling $10.96 billion have filed for court restructuring through mid-August, according to the law firm’s report.

Last year, 28 companies filed for bankruptcy, listing $13.2 billion in debt, while 24 firms sought protection in 2017 with $8.5 billion in debt.

“So far this year there has been an uptick in the number of filings,” Haynes & Boone said, noting 20 of the filings have been since May.

Through most of 2019, U.S. light, sweet crude oil has been stuck in the $50-range on the New York Mercantile Exchange, finishing on Wednesday at $55.23. West Texas Intermediate averaged $65.06 a barrel last year. Natural gas prices also have fallen so low in some places that some companies have shut in wells and others have paid pipeline operators to take their gas.

Buddy Clark, a Haynes & Boone partner, said however that he did not predict a new wave of producer bankruptcies similar to that which followed the oil price collapse mid-decade. In 2015, there were 44 oil and gas producers filing for protection with combined debts of $17.4 billion.

“We’re not going to see anywhere near the wave of bankruptcies in 2015,” Clark said in an interview.

Many of 2019’s filings are pre-planned, Chapter 11 restructurings, where creditors agree in advance on a financial restructuring plan, Clark said.

“I don’t think you will see a lot of Chapter 7 (liquidations),” he said. “When you see Chapter 7s is when there are no assets left. Typically, there are always assets left.”

In the oilfield services industry, there were 10 bankruptcy filings so far this year, with Weatherford International Plc by far the largest. It filed in July, listing unsecured debts of $7.4 billion, according to the report. The remaining nine firms combined have debts with a total value of $205 million.

The bright spot in the industry was the midstream sector. Only one pipeline company, Southcross Energy Partners LP, filed for bankruptcy so far this year. It listed debts totalling $828 million.

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