HOUSTON – U.S. shale oil producers, whose weak returns in recent years had them out of favor with investors even before the coronavirus pandemic crushed oil prices and decimated production, are expected to post their worst second-quarter results since 2016.
Oil is down about 35% since January as fuel demand tumbled during economic lockdowns. Results include a modern nadir for crude with U.S. prices averaging less than $17 per barrel in April.
“No one expects the second quarter to be anything but bizarre,” said Bob Watson, chief executive of Abraxas Petroleum Corp (AXAS.O), which produces in two shale basins. It got through the quarter thanks to hedges that locked in higher prices, said Watson.
U.S. shale is set to report the worst operating results, excluding impairments, since the last oil bust in 2016, according to a Reuters analysis of financial data from 10 top producers in the sector.
ConocoPhillips, the largest U.S. independent producer, kicks off earnings on Thursday and is expected to swing to a per share loss of 49 cents, from a $1.40 profit a year ago, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.
Most major shale firms are expected to post quarterly losses in coming days, including Pioneer Natural Resources (PXD.N), EOG Resources (EOG.N), Parsley Energy (PE.N) and Continental Resources (CLR.N), according to Refinitiv.
Lower prices prompted shale firms to curtail about 2 million barrels of oil in April and May to avoid larger losses. Volumes recovered somewhat in June as prices rebounded to about $38 a barrel.
“April and May were abysmal,” said Regina Mayor, global head of energy at consultants KPMG.
June’s partial lift showed “people need the cash,” said Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of market researcher IHSMarkit.
But the rebound will prove temporary, he said with production by U.S. shale firms continuing to decline “over the next year or so,” said Yergin in an interview.
“It’s ingrained into your DNA to bring volume online and do what you can to sustain volumes,” David Dell’Osso, operations chief at shale producer Parsley.
Investors will listen for clues to the price needed to return equipment to the field, said Ben Cook, portfolio manager at energy investors BP Capital Fund Advisors.
Shale firms could write down an estimated $300 billion in assets starting this quarter, pushing some out of compliance with loan covenants and sparking new bankruptcies, according to accounting and consulting firm Deloitte.
Chesapeake Energy and Whiting Petroleum were among 18 producers that filed for bankruptcy in the second quarter, up from five in the first quarter, according to law firm Haynes and Boone.
Many shale properties are “simply not economically viable even at today’s stronger prices,” said Dan Eberhart, a private equity investor and CEO of oilfield services firm Canary, LLC.
The industry already was scorned by investors frustrated by a decade of poor returns – shale has had net negative free cash flow of $300 billion since 2010, according to Deloitte. A key index, the SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF (XOP.P), is down 45% year to date.