"Drillers piling up more debt than oil hunting fortunes in shale."

Bloomberg: “Floyd Wilson raps his fingertips against the polished conference table. He’s just been asked, for a second time, how he reacted when his Halcon Resources Corp. (HK) wrote off $1.2 billion last year after disappointing results in two key prospects.”
“Wilson once told investors that the acreage might contain the equivalent of 1.2 billion barrels of oil. He fixes his interlocutor with a blue-eyed stare and leans forward. At 67, he bench-presses 250 pounds (110 kilograms) and looks it. Outside the expansive windows of his 67th-floor executive suite, downtown Houston steams in its July smog.
He responds, unsmiling, with a one-syllable obscenity: “F—.”
Wilson has reason to curse, Bloomberg Markets magazine will report in its October issue. On the wall behind him hang framed stock certificates of the four public energy companies he’s built in his 44-year career. The third, Petrohawk Energy Corp., discovered the Eagle Ford shale, now the second-most-prolific oil formation in the country. He sold Petrohawk three years ago for $15.1 billion.
Then came Halcon. Since Wilson took over as chairman and chief executive officer in February 2012, the company’s shares have dropped by about half, trading at $5.67 on Sept. 5.
Halcon spent $3.40 for every dollar it earned from operations in the 12 months through June 30. That’s more than all but six of the 60 U.S.-listed companies in the Bloomberg Intelligence North America Independent E&P Valuation Peers index. The company lost $1.4 billion in those 12 months. Halcon’s debt was almost $3.2 billion as of Sept. 5, or $23 for every barrel of proved reserves, more than any of its competitors.
Wilson is undeterred. “What do you do if you’re wrong? You go home and cry?” he asks. He shakes his head. “Uh-uh.”
A decade into a shale boom that has made fracking a household word and Wilson a rich man, drillers are propping up the dream of U.S. energy independence with a mountain of debt. As oil production hits a 28-year high, investors and politicians are buying into the vision of a domestic energy renaissance.
Companies are paying a steep price for the gains. Like Halcon, most are spending money faster than they make it, an average of $1.17 for every dollar earned in the 12 months ended on June 30. Only seven of the U.S.-listed firms in Bloomberg Intelligence’s E&P index made more money in that time than it cost them to keep drilling. (Results for two companies included only the first six months of 2014.)
These companies are plugging cash shortfalls with junk-rated debt. They owed $190.2 billion at the end of June, up from $140.2 billion at the end of 2011. (Six of the 60 companies that didn’t have records available for the full period weren’t included.)
Standard & Poor’s rates the debt of 41 of the companies, including Halcon’s, below investment grade, meaning some pension funds and insurance companies aren’t allowed to invest in them. S&P grades Halcon’s bonds CCC+, which the rating company describes as vulnerable to nonpayment.
Money manager Tim Gramatovich sees disaster looming in the industry.
“I have lent money to nobody in this space, and I don’t plan to. This thing is absolutely going to blow sky-high,” says Gramatovich, chief investment officer of Peritus Asset Management LLC in Santa BarbaraCalifornia. The firm manages investments of about $1 billion, including the debt and equity of oil and gas companies that aren’t drilling shale.
Halcon’s recent lousy run shows how quickly a bright future can dim. Like many of its peers, Halcon uses two sets of numbers to describe its outlook. To the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the company reports what’s known as proved reserves.
The SEC requires an annual tally and limits these calculations to what the firm is reasonably certain it can extract from existing wells and other properties scheduled to be drilled within five years, based on factors such as geology, engineering and historical production.
To investors and lenders, Halcon also highlights a much higher figure that it calls resource potential. These estimates, while loosely defined by industry guidelines, don’t follow the SEC rule or timeline, as Halcon discloses at the beginning of its presentations. In fact, as Halcon notes, the SEC forbids companies from making resource-potential claims in official reserve reports. The agency doesn’t regulate what companies say at investor conferences, in press releases or on their websites. No one does.
Discrepancies between proved reserves and resource potential are common in the industry, and investors can get duped, says Ed Hirs, a managing director at Houston-based Hillhouse Resources LLC, an independent energy company, who also teaches energy economics at the University of Houston.
….In 2008, while under shareholder pressure to cut spending and reduce debt, Wilson and his team made the discovery of a lifetime — the Eagle Ford formation, now pumping 1.5 million barrels of crude and 6.5 billion cubic feet (184 million cubic meters) of natural gas every day.
His sale of Petrohawk in 2011 to BHP Billiton Ltd. was the second-largest transaction in North America’s oil and gas industry in more than five years, trailing only Exxon Mobil Corp.’s $35 billion purchase of XTO Energy Inc. in 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Six weeks later, in April 2012, Wilson told investors attending the Independent Petroleum Association of America conference at the Sheraton Hotel near New York’s Times Square that Halcon’s companywide resource potential was 1.4 billion barrels. The number was striking because it was 66 times higher than the proved reserves Halcon reported to the SEC in March 2012.
The Halcon slide show outlined the two biggest prospects: 875 million barrels in the Utica shale, which stretches across Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, and a further 306 million in the Woodbine in East Texas. Footnotes say Halcon had yet to drill a single well in either location.
Investors were eager to back Halcon. It raised $2.1 billion in bonds in the 12 months following the April presentation. The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, a $227 billion fund that manages retirement assets for 18 million Canadians, paid $300 million for an 11.4 percent equity stake in October 2012. Mei Mavin, a spokeswoman for the pension board, declined to comment.
As the months passed, Halcon had trouble turning the potential into proved reserves. Wilson sounded optimistic. During an August 2013 conference call, he says, “We’re really excited about our Utica/Point Pleasant asset.”
Wilson says a Halcon well was one of the most important in the play and, though some of its acreage was “goat pasture,” the company was preparing for full-scale development of the Utica.
Three months later, the company reported a write-off of $1.2 billion, largely related to the Utica and Woodbine plays. Halcon sold its Woodbine acreage for $450 million in February 2014. After almost two years of drilling, Halcon reported to the SEC in March 2014 that it had 16.4 million barrels of proved reserves in the Utica and Woodbine — the same acreage that Wilson had said in April 2012 contained the potential for 1.2 billion. The estimated bonanza had simply evaporated — eliciting Wilson’s four-letter obscenity.
“Resource potential, which means ‘Who knows?’” he says in the July interview. “But it’s possible. Resource potential down in the Eagle Ford of south Texas increased 10-fold over time. So our business can be rough. It can go either way.”
Halcon’s latest prospects lie beneath the oak woods and blackland prairies north of Houston, in its El Halcon prospect, and under the arid plateaus of western North Dakota, where the company is drilling the Bakken shale. The two plays account for most of Halcon’s production.
Wilson’s biggest gamble is on 315,000 acres (127,000 hectares) of unproven Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, known as the TMS, a layer of rock stretching from Louisiana’s western border to southwestern Mississippi.
“It has to work for them,” says Leo Mariani, a senior analyst at RBC Capital Markets LLC in Austin, Texas. “If the acreage doesn’t work out and they can’t get the costs down, they’re going to be in big trouble.”
Squeezing oil from the TMS is an engineering challenge. The formation is 2 miles underground through rock interlaced with rubble and sand. On a humid July morning, a sign in the red clay of Wilkinson County, Mississippi, announces Halcon’s Fassmann 9H-1 well. A Helmerich & Payne Inc. Flex3 rig rises above the clearing. A monitor in the air-conditioned supervisor’s trailer shows the drill bit has reached a depth of 12,000 feet (3,660 meters).
Progress is slow. In the rig operator’s cabin 30 feet up, one man steers a circulating bit screwed to the end of 2 miles of pipe, monitoring progress on a bank of flashing screens. The bit must pierce the TMS horizontally in the right spot. His margin of error: 5 feet.
He misses. Frustration is thick as the temperature climbs to 91 degrees Fahrenheit (33 degrees Celsius). The hours slip by, measured in feet of pipe. As a near-full moon rises, a relief crew dressed in fire-retardant jumpsuits emerges, already sweating, from bunkhouses at the edge of the clearing. Heat lightning flashes in purple clouds to the south. It’s after 9 p.m. when a supervisor gets a message. The drill has veered off course. It’s time to try again.
At more than $13 million apiece, Halcon’s wells in the TMS are the company’s most expensive. Halcon abandoned its first well, the Broadway H1, after an underground casing failed. It has two producing wells in the play. Three others are in progress.
Wilson says Halcon has enough cash to keep trying and no imminent debt payments. Funds associated with Apollo Global Management LLC (APO), a New York–based private-equity firm, committed as much as $400 million in June to help Halcon pay for drilling in the TMS in exchange for a 12 percent return and a 4 percent royalty on what’s produced. That’s reduced to 2 percent after a threshold return has been met, Apollo says.
….With the U.S. bent on energy independence and investors chasing riches from the fracking boom, there’s one other number to consider. Halcon’s proved reserves from the TMS reported to the SEC: zero.”