Category Archives: Permian Basin

12 Signs That The Economy Is Really Starting To Bleed Oil Patch Jobs

by Michael Snyder via The Economic Collapse blog,

The gravy train is over for oil workers.  All over North America, people that felt very secure about their jobs just a few weeks ago are now getting pink slips.  There are even some people that I know personally that this has happened to.  The economy is really starting to bleed oil patch jobs, and as long as the price of oil stays down at this level the job losses are going to continue.  But this is what happens when a “boom” turns into a “bust”.

Since 2003, drilling and extraction jobs in the United States have doubled.  And these jobs typically pay very well.  It is not uncommon for oil patch workers to make well over $100,000 a year, and these are precisely the types of jobs that we cannot afford to be losing.  The middle class is struggling mightily as it is. And just like we witnessed in 2008, oil industry layoffs usually come before a downturn in employment for the overall economy.  So if you think that it is tough to find a good job in America right now, you definitely will not like what comes next.

At one time, I encouraged those that were desperate for employment to check out states like North Dakota and Texas that were experiencing an oil boom.  Unfortunately, the tremendous expansion that we witnessed is now reversing

In states like North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas, which have reaped the benefits of a domestic oil boom, the retrenchment is beginning.

“Drilling budgets are being slashed across the board,” said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents more than 500 companies working in the state’s Bakken oil patch.

Smaller budgets and less extraction activity means less jobs.

Often, the loss of a job in this industry can come without any warning whatsoever.  Just check out the following example from a recent Bloomberg article

The first thing oilfield geophysicist Emmanuel Osakwe noticed when he arrived back at work before 8 a.m. last month after a short vacation was all the darkened offices.

By that time of morning, the West Houston building of his oilfield services company was usually bustling with workers. A couple hours later, after a surprise call from Human Resources, Osakwe was adding to the emptiness: one of thousands of energy industry workers getting their pink slips as crude prices have plunged to less than $50 a barrel.

These jobs are not easy to replace.  If oil industry veterans go down to the local Wal-Mart to get jobs, they will end up making only a very small fraction of what they once did.  Every one of these jobs that gets lost is really going to hurt.

And at this point, the job losses in the oil industry are threatening to become an avalanche.  The following are 12 signs that the economy is really starting to bleed oil patch jobs…

#1 It is being projected that the U.S. oil rig count will decline by 15 percent in the first quarter of 2015 alone.  And when there are less rigs operating, less workers are needed so people get fired.

#2 Last week, 55 more oil rigs shut down.  That was the largest single week decline in the United States in 24 years.

#3 Oilfield services provider Baker Hughes has announced that it plans to lay off 7,000 workers.

#4 Schlumberger, a big player in the energy industry, has announced plans to get rid of 9,000 workers.

#5 Suncor Energy is eliminating 1,000 workers from their oil projects up in Canada.

#6 Halliburton’s energy industry operations have slowed down dramatically, so they gave pink slips to 1,000 workers last month.

#7 Diamondback Energy just slashed their capital expenditure budget 40 percent to just $450 million.

#8 Elevation Resources plans to cut their capital expenditure budget from $227 million to $100 million.

#9 Concho Resources says that it plans to reduce the number of rigs that it is operating from 35 to 25.

#10 Tullow Oil has reduced their exploration budget from approximately a billion dollars to about 200 million dollars.

#11 Henry Resources President Danny Campbell has announced that his company is reducing activity “by up to 40 percent“.

#12 The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas is projecting that 140,000 jobs related to the energy industry will be lost in the state of Texas alone during 2015.

And of course it isn’t just workers that are going to suffer.

Some states are extremely dependent on oil revenues.  Just take the state of Alaska for instance.  According to one recent news report, 90 percent of the budget of Alaska comes from oil revenue…

But oil is also a revenue source in more than two dozen states, especially for about a third of them. In Alaska, where up to 90 percent of the budget is funded by oil, new Gov. Bill Walker has ordered agency heads to start identifying spending cuts.

Sadly, it looks like oil is not going to rebound any time soon.

China, the biggest user of oil in the world, just reported that economic growth expanded at the slowest pace in 24 years.  And concerns about oversupply drove the price of U.S. crude down another couple of dollars on Monday

Oil declined about 5 percent on Tuesday after the International Monetary Fund cut its 2015 global economic forecast on lower fuel demand and key producer Iran hinted prices could drop to $25 a barrel without supportive OPEC action.

U.S. crude, also known as West Texas Intermediate or WTI, settled 4.7 percent lower at $46.39 a barrel, near its intraday bottom of $46.23.

There is only one other time in history when we have seen an oil price crash of this magnitude.

That was in 2008, just before the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Source

At Last The “Experts” Wake Up To Oil

by Raul Ilargi Meijer via The Automatic Earth blog,

Boy, did the ‘experts’ and ‘analysts’ drop the ball on this one, or what’s the story. Only yesterday, Goldman’s highly paid analysts admitted they’ve been dead wrong from months, that their prediction that OPEC would cut production will not happen, and that therefore oil may go as low as $40. Anyone have any idea what that miss has cost Goldman’s clients? And now of course other ‘experts’ – prone to herd behavior – ‘adjust’ their expectations as well.

They all have consistently underestimated three things: the drop in global oil demand, the impact QE had on commodity prices, and the ‘power’ OPEC has. Everyone kept on talking, over the past 3 months, as oil went from $75 – couldn’t go lower than that, could it? – to today’s $46, about how OPEC and the Saudis were going to have to cut output or else, but they never understood the position OPEC countries are in. Which is that they don’t have anything near the power they had in 1973 or 1986, but that completely escaped all analysts and experts and media. Everyone still thinks China is growing at a 7%+ clip, but the only numbers that sort of thing is based on come from .. China. As for QE, need I say anymore, or anything at all?

So Goldman says oil will drop to $40, but Goldman was spectacularly wrong until now, so why believe them this time around? As oil prices plunged from $75 in mid November all the way to $45 today (about a 40% drop, more like 55% from June 2014′s $102), their analysts kept saying OPEC and the Saudis would cut output. Didn’t happen. As I said several times since last fall, OPEC saw the new reality before anyone else. But why did it still take 2 months+ for the ‘experts’ and ‘analysts’ to catch up? I would almost wonder how many of these smart guys bet against their clients in the meantime.

I’m going to try and adhere to a chronological order here, or both you and I will get lost. On November 22 2014, when WTI oil was at about $75, I wrote:

Who’s Ready For $30 Oil?

What is clear is that even at $75, angst is setting in, if not yet panic. If China demand falls substantially in 2015, and prices move south of $70, $60 etc., that panic will be there. In US shale, in Venezuela, in Russia, and all across producing nations. Even if OPEC on November 27 decides on an output cut, there’s no guarantee members will stick to it. Let alone non-members. And sure, yes, eventually production will sink so much that prices stop falling. But with all major economies in the doldrums, it may not hit a bottom until $40 or even lower.

Oil was last- and briefly – at $40 exactly 6 years ago, but today is a very different situation. All the stimulus, all $50 trillion or so globally, has been thrown into the fire, and look at where we are. There’s nothing left, and there won’t be another $50 trillion. Sure, stock markets set records. But who cares with oil at $40? Calling for more QE, from Japan and/or Europe or even grandma Yellen, is either entirely useless or will work only to prop up stock markets for a very short time. Diminishing returns. The one word that comes to mind here is bloodbath. Well, unless China miraculously recovers. But who believes in that?

5 days later, on November 27, with WTI still around $75, I followed up with:

The Price Of Oil Exposes The True State Of The Economy

Tracy Alloway at FT mentions major banks and their energy-related losses:

“Banks including Barclays and Wells Fargo are facing potentially heavy losses on an $850 million loan made to two oil and gas companies, in a sign of how the dramatic slide in the price of oil is beginning to reverberate through the wider economy. [..] if Barclays and Wells attempted to syndicate the $850m loan now, it could go for as little as 60 cents on the dollar.”

That’s just one loan. At 60 cents on the dollar, a $340 million loss. Who knows how many similar, and bigger, loans are out there? Put together, these stories slowly seeping out of the juncture of energy and finance gives the good and willing listener an inkling of an idea of the losses being incurred throughout the global economy, and by the large financiers. There’s a bloodbath brewing in the shadows. Countries can see their revenues cut by a third and move on, perhaps with new leaders, but many companies can’t lose that much income and keep on going, certainly not when they’re heavily leveraged.

The Saudi’s refuse to cut output and say: let America cut. But American oil producers can’t cut even if they would want to, it would blow their debt laden enterprises out of the water, and out of existence. Besides, that energy independence thing plays a big role of course. But with prices continuing to fall, much of that industry will go belly up because credit gets withdrawn.

That was then. Today, oil is at $46, not $75. Also today, Michael A. Gayed, CFA, hedge funder and chief investment strategist and co-portfolio manager at Pension Partners, LLC, draws the exact same conclusion, over 7 weeks and a 40%-odd drop in prices later:

Falling Oil Reveals The Truth About The Market

It seems like every day some pundit is on air arguing that falling oil is a net long-term positive for the U.S. economy. The cheaper energy gets, the more consumers have to spend elsewhere, serving as a tax cut for the average American. There is a lot of logic to that, assuming that oil’s price movement is not indicative of a major breakdown in economic and growth expectations. What’s not to love about cheap oil? The problem with this argument, of course, is that it assumes follow through to end users. If oil gets cheaper but is not fully reflected in the price of goods, the consumer does not benefit, or at least only partially does and less so than one might otherwise think. I believe this is a nuance not fully understood by those making the bull argument. Falling oil may actually be a precursor to higher volatility as investors begin to question speed’s message.

How much did Michael’s clients lose in those 7+ weeks?

Something I also said in that same November 27 article was:

US shale is no longer about what’s feasible to drill today, it’s about what can still be financed tomorrow.

And whaddaya know, Bloomberg runs this headline 51 days and -40% further along:

What Matters Is the Debt Shale Drillers Have, Not the Oil

U.S. shale drillers may tout how much oil they have in the ground or how cheaply they can get it out. For stock investors, what matters most is debt. The worst performers among U.S. oil producers in a Bloomberg index owe about 5.7 times more than they earn, before certain deductions, compared with 1.7 times for companies that have taken less of a hit. Operations, such as where the companies drill or how much oil versus gas they pump, matter less.

“With oil prices below $50 and approaching $40, we’re in survivor mode,” Steven Rees, who helps oversee about $1 trillion as global head of equity strategy at JPMorgan Private Bank, said via phone. “The companies with the higher degrees of leverage have underperformed, and you don’t want to own those because there’s a fair amount of uncertainty as to whether they can repay that debt.”

That’s the exact same thing I said way back when! Who trusts these guys with either their money or their news? When they could just read me and be 7 weeks+ ahead of the game? Not that I want to manage your money, don’t get me wrong, I’m just thinking these errors can add up to serious losses. And they wouldn’t have to. That’s why there’s TheAutomaticEarth.com.

A good one, which I posted December 12, with WTI at $67 (remember the gold old days, grandma?), was this one on what oil actually sells for out there, not what WTO and Brent standards say. An eye-opener.

Will Oil Kill The Zombies?

Tom Kloza, founder and analyst at Oil Price Information Service, said the market could bottom for the winter in about 30 days, but then it will be up to whatever OPEC does. “It’s (oil) actually much weaker than the futures markets indicate. This is true for crude oil, and it’s true for gasoline. There’s a little bit of a desperation in the crude market,” said Kloza.”The Canadian crude, if you go into the oil sands, is in the $30s, and you talk about Western Canadian Select heavy crude upgrade that comes out of Canada, it’s at $41/$42 a barrel.”

“Bakken is probably about $54.” Kloza said there’s some talk that Venezuelan heavy crude is seeing prices $20 to $22 less than Brent, the international benchmark. Brent futures were at $63.20 per barrel late Thursday. “In the actual physical market, it’s fallen by even more than the futures market. That’s a telling sign, and it’s telling me that this isn’t over yet. This isn’t the bottoming process. The physical market turns before the futures,” he said.

Oil prices have come down close to another 20% since then, in just one month $67 to $46 right now. And it’s going to keep plunging, if only because Goldman belatedly woke up and said so today:

Goldman Sees Need for $40 Oil as OPEC Cut Forecast Abandoned

Goldman Sachs said U.S. oil prices need to trade near $40 a barrel in the first half of this year to curb shale investments as it gave up on OPEC cutting output to balance the market. The bank cut its forecasts for global benchmark crude prices, predicting inventories will increase over the first half of this year.. Excess storage and tanker capacity suggests the market can run a surplus far longer than it has in the past, said Goldman analysts including Jeffrey Currie in New York. The U.S. is pumping oil at the fastest pace in more than three decades, helped by a shale boom ..

“To keep all capital sidelined and curtail investment in shale until the market has re-balanced, we believe prices need to stay lower for longer,” Goldman said in the report. “The search for a new equilibrium in oil markets continues.” West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. marker crude, will trade at $41 a barrel and global benchmark Brent at $42 in three months, the bank said. It had previously forecast WTI at $70 and Brent at $80 for the first quarter. Goldman reduced its six and 12-month WTI predictions to $39 a barrel and $65, from $75 and $80, respectively ..

Well, after that 2-month blooper I described above, who would trust Goldman anymore, right, silly you is thinking. Don’t be mistaken, people listen to GS, no matter how wrong they are.

Meanwhile, the thumbscrews keep on tightening:

UK Oil Firms Warn Osborne: Without Big Tax Cuts We Are Doomed

North Sea oil and gas companies are to be offered tax concessions by the Chancellor in an effort to avoid production and investment cutbacks and an exodus of explorers. George Osborne has drawn up a set of tax reform plans, following warnings that the industry’s future is at risk without substantial tax cuts. But the industry fears he will not go far enough. Oil & Gas UK, the industry body, is urging a tax cut of as much as 30% [..] “If we don’t get an immediate 10% cut, then that will be the death knell for the industry [..] Companies operating fields discovered before 1992 can end up with handing over80% of their profits to the Chancellor; post-1992 discoveries carry a 60% profits hit.

And hitting botttom lines:

As Oil Plummets, How Much Pain Still Looms For US Energy Firms?

A closer look at valuations and interviews with a dozen of smaller firms ahead of fourth quarter results from their bigger, listed rivals, shows there are reasons to be nervous. What small firms say is that the oil rout hit home faster and harder than most had expected. “Things have changed a lot quicker than I thought they would,” says Greg Doramus, sales manager at Orion Drilling in Texas, a small firm which leases 16 drilling rigs. He talks about falling rates, last-minute order cancellations and customers breaking leases. The conventional wisdom is that hedging and long-term contracts would ensure that most energy firms would only start feeling the full force of the downdraft this year.

The view from the oil fields from Texas to North Dakota is that the pain is already spreading. “We have been cut from the work,” says Adam Marriott, president of Fandango Logistics, a small oil trucking firm in Salt Lake City. He says shipments have fallen by half since June when oil was fetching more than $100 a barrel and his company had all the business it could handle. Bigger firms are also feeling the sting. Last week, a leading U.S. drilling contractor Helmerich & Payne reported that leasing rates for its high-tech rigs plunged 10% from the previous quarter, sending its shares 5% lower.

And, then, as yours truly predicted last fall, oil’s downward spiral spreads, and the entire – always nonsensical – narrative of a boost to the economy from falling oil prices vanishes into thin air. You could have known that, too, at least 2 months ago. Bloomberg:

Oil’s Plunge Wipes Out S&P 500 Earnings

While stock investors wait for the benefits of cheaper oil to seep into the economy, all they can see lately is downside. Forecasts for first-quarter profits in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index have fallen by 6.4 percentage points from three months ago, the biggest decrease since 2009, according to more than 6,000 analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Reductions spread across nine of 10 industry groups and energy companies saw the biggest cut. Earnings pessimism is growing just as the best three-year rally since the technology boom pushed equity valuations to the highest level since 2010.

At the same time, volatility has surged in the American stock market as oil’s 55% drop since June to below $49 a barrel raises speculation that companies will cancel investment and credit markets and banks will suffer from debt defaults. [..] American companies are facing the weakest back-to-back quarterly earnings expansions since 2009 as energy wipes out more than half the growth and the benefit to retailers and shippers fails to catch up.

Oil producers are rocked by a combination of faltering demand and booming supplies from North American shale fields, with crude sinking to $48.36 a barrel from an average $98.61 in the first three months of 2014. Except for utilities, every other industry has seen reductions in estimates. Profit from energy producers such as Exxon Mobil and Chevron will plunge 35% this quarter, analysts estimated.

In October, analysts expected the industry to earn about the same as it did a year ago. “My initial thought was oil would take a dollar or two off the overall S&P 500 earnings but that obviously might be worse now,” Dan Greenhaus at BTIG said in a phone interview. “The whole thing has moved much more rapidly and farther than anyone thought. People were only taking into account consumer spending and there was a sense that falling energy is ubiquitously positive for the U.S., but I’m not convinced.”

Well, not than anyone thought. Not me, for one. Just than the ‘experts’ thought. But that’s exactly what I said at the time. And I must thank Bloomberg for vindicating me. Don’t worry, guys, I wouldn’t want to be part of your expert panel if my life depended on it. And it’s not about me wanting to toot my own horn either, tickling as it may be for a few seconds, but about the likes of TheAutomaticEarth.com, or ZeroHedge.com and WolfStreet.com and many others, getting the recognition we deserve. If you ask me, reading the finance blogosphere can save you a lot of money. That’s merely a simple conclusion to draw from the above.

And only now are people starting to figure out that the real economy may not have had any boon from lower oil prices either:

How Falling Gasoline Prices Are Hurting Retail Sales

Aren’t declining gasoline prices supposed to be good news for the economy? They certainly are to households not employed in the energy industry, but it might not seem so from the one of the biggest economic indicators due for release this week. On Wednesday, the Commerce Department is set to report retail sales for December. It’s the most important month of the year for retailers, but economists polled by MarketWatch are expecting a flat reading, and quite a few say a monthly decline wouldn’t be a surprise. [..] After department stores saw a 1% monthly gain in November, the segment may reverse some of that advance in the final month of the year.

This whole idea of Americans running rampant in malls with the cash they saved from lower prices at the pump was always just something somebody smoked. And now we’ll get swamped soon with desperate attempts to make US holiday sales look good, but if I were you, I’d take an idled oiltanker’s worth of salt with all of those attempts.

Still, the Fed, in my view, is set to stick with its narrative of the US economy doing so well they just have to raise interest rates. It’s for the Wall Street banks, don’t you know. That narrative, in this case, is “Ignore transitory volatility in energy prices.” The Fed expects for sufficient mayhem to happen in emerging markets to lift the US, and for enough dollars to ‘come home’ to justify a rate hike that will shake the world economy on its foundations but will leave the US elites relatively unscathed and even provide them with more riches. And if anyone wants to get richer, it’s the rich. They simply think they have it figured out.

Why Falling Oil Prices Won’t Delay Fed Rate Increases /span>

Financial markets have been shaken over the past several weeks by a misguided fear that deflation has imbedded itself not only into the European economy but the U.S. economy as well. Deflation is a serious problem for Europe, because the eurozone is plagued with bad debts and stagnant growth. Prices and wages in the peripheral nations (such as Greece and Spain) must fall still further in relation to Germany’s in order to restore their economies to competitiveness. But that’s not possible if prices and wages are falling in Germany (or even if they are only rising slowly).

In Europe, deflation will extend the economic crisis, but that’s not an issue in the United States, where households, businesses and banks have mostly completed the necessary adjustments to their balance sheets after the great debt boom of the prior decade. The plunge in oil prices will likely push the annual U.S. inflation rate below 1%, further from the Fed target of 2%. [..] Falling oil prices are a temporary phenomenon that shouldn’t alter anyone’s view about the underlying rate of inflation.

On Wednesday, the newly released minutes of the Fed’s latest meeting in December revealed that most members of the FOMC are ready to raise rates this summer even if inflation continues to fall, as long as there’s a reasonable expectation that inflation will eventually drift back to 2%. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke got a lot of flak in the spring of 2011 when oil prices were rising and annual inflation rates climbed to near 4%, double the Fed’s target.

Bernanke’s critics wanted him to raise interest rates immediately to fight the inflation, but he insisted that the spike was “transitory” and that the Fed wouldn’t respond. Bernanke was right then: Inflation rates drifted lower, just as he predicted. Now the situation is reversed: Oil prices are falling, and critics of the Fed say it should hold off on raising interest rates. The Fed’s policy in both cases is the same: Ignore transitory volatility in energy prices.

There are all these press-op announcements all the time by Fed officials that I think can only be read as setting up a fake discussion between pro and con rate hike, that are meant just for public consumption. The Fed serves it member banks, not the American people, don’t let’s forget that. No matter what happens, they can always issue a majority opinion that oil prices or real estate prices, or anything, are only ‘transitory’, and so their policies should ignore them. US economic numbers look great on the surface, it’s only when you start digging that they don’t.

I see far too much complacency out there when it comes to interest rates, in the same manner that I’ve seen it concerning oil prices. We live in a new world, not a continuation of the old one. That old world died with Fed QE. Just check the price of oil. There have been tectonic shifts since over, let’s say, the holidays, and I wouldn’t wait for the ‘experts’ to catch up with live events. Being 7 weeks or two months late is a lot of time. And they will be late, again. It’s inherent in what they do. And what they represent.

Source

Crashing crude may blow a $1.6 trillion hole in the global oil sector, annually

Dec 14, 2014 9:36 a.m. ET

NEW YORK (MarketWatch)—Talk about an oil spill. The spectacular unhinging of crude oil prices over the past six months is weighing mightily on the U.S. stock market.

And while it may be too early to abandon all hope that the market will stage a year-end Santa rally, it appears that if Father Christmas comes, there’s a good chance his sleigh will be driven by polar bears, instead of gift-laden reindeer.

Wall Street’s gift: a major stock correction.

Indeed, the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, -1.79%  already endured a bludgeoning, registering its second-worst weekly loss in 2014, shedding 570 points, or 3.2%, on Friday. That’s just shy of the 579 points that the Dow lost during the week ending Jan. 24, earlier this year. It’s also the second worst week for the S&P 500 this year SPX, -1.62% which was down about 58 points, over the past five trading days, or 2.83%, compared to a cumulative weekly loss of 61.7 points, or 3.14%, during the week concluding Oct. 10.

But all that carnage is nothing compared to what may be in store for the oil sector as crude oil tumbles to new gut-wrenching lows on an almost daily basis. On the New York Mercantile exchange light, sweet crude oil for January delivery settled at $57.81 on Friday, its lowest settlement since May 15, 2009.

Moreover, the largest energy exchange traded fund, the energy SPDR XLE, -1.86% is off by 14% over the past month and has lost a quarter of its value since mid-June.

The real damage, however, is yet to come. By some estimates the wreckage, particularly for the oil-services companies, may add up to a stunning $1.6 trillion annual loss, at oil’s current $57 low, predicts Eric Lascelles, RBC Global Asset Management chief economist.

Since it’s a zero-sum game, that translates into a big windfall for everyone else outside of oil players.

In his calculation, Lascelles includes the cumulative decline in oil prices since July and current supply estimates of 93 million barrels a day. It’s a fairly simplistic tally, but it gets the point across that the energy sector is facing a serious oil leak. Here’s a look at a graphic illustrating the zero-sum, wealth redistribution playing out as oil craters: Source and more

Shale Gas Boom: Hydraulic Fracturing and Potential Legal Claims

Joshua W. Mermis
Friday, June 22, 2012

A “gas rush” is revitalizing the domestic petroleum exploration industry, and the legal ramifications could be felt for decades. Through hydraulic fracturing (fracking), petroleum companies access once cost prohibitive shale gas formations by creating fractures in underground rock formations, thereby facilitating oil or gas production by providing pathways for oil or gas to flow to the well. These pathways are commonly referred to as the “fractures.” The legal consequences of fracking could impact more than half of the Lower 48 states.

Background of Hydraulic Fracturing

The basic technique of fracking is not new. In fact, fracking has been used in wells since the late 1940s. The first commercial fracking job took place in 1949 in Velma, Oklahoma, however, sequestered layers of shale gas were inaccessible until 1985, when pioneers such as Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation combined fracking with a newer technology called directional, or horizontal drilling in the Austin Chalk. Directional drilling gave producers access to the shale gas because it allowed them to turn a downward- plodding drill bit as much as 90 degrees and continue drilling within the layer for thousands of additional feet. The positive results were soon transferred to the Barnett Shale in North Texas. To date, more than one million wells have been fractured.
The “hottest” shale plays are as follows:

  • Bakken (Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota)
  • Barnett Shale (Texas)
  • Eagle Ford (Texas)
  • Haynesville (Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas)
  • Marcellus Shale (New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia)
  • Utica (Kentucky, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia)

Confirmed and/or prospective shale plays are also found in Alabama, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming. Shale plays have been confirmed in countries around the world, but the US is the leader in shale gas exploration.

More Money, More Problems

The new application of an old technology made it possible to profitably produce oil and gas from shale formations. Domestic and international companies quickly rushed to capitalize on the large reservoirs of shale gas. But unlike the preceding decades, where new oil and gas exploration had occurred offshore and in deepwater, oil and gas drilling started to occur in areas that were not accustomed to oil and gas activity. Overnight ranchers became millionaires as landmen leased large swaths of property to drill. The media started reporting about enormous domestic supplies of oil and gas that could be profitably produced from shale formations and politicians touted energy independence that could alleviate the country’s demand for foreign reserves. But with the increased attention came increased scrutiny.

Environmental groups have criticized the industry for fracking. The chief concern is that fracking will contamination of drinking water. Movies such as “Gasland” and “Gasland 2” fueled the public’s concerns that the drilling caused polluted water wells and flammable kitchen faucets. Additionally, the industry received criticism for the engineering process that involved high-rate, high-pressure injections of large volumes of water and some chemicals into a well to facilitate the fracking. The EPA and state regulatory bodies have become involved in the discussion and new regulations are likely to follow. In the meantime, some lawsuits have already been filed.

Pending Hydraulic Fracturing Litigation

Plaintiffs have filed approximately forty shale-related lawsuits across the country. These lawsuits include: (1) tort lawsuits; (2) environmental lawsuits; or (3) industry lawsuits. As the shale boom accelerates more suits are anticipated.

1. Tort Lawsuits

Tort lawsuits have been brought by individuals and as class actions. Typically the claimants assert claims for trespass, nuisance, negligence and strict liability. Their complaints involve excessive noise, increased seismic activity, environmental contamination (air, soil and groundwater), diminution in property value, death of livestock/animals, mental anguish and emotional distress. The plaintiffs seek actual damages and, in some instances, injunctive relief. A few parties have even sought the establishment of a medical monitoring fund. The majority of these lawsuits have been filed in Texas, Pennsylvania and Louisiana. The first wave of lawsuits has established new law in the respective jurisdictions as the appellate courts weigh in with published opinions on issues that range from oil and gas lease forfeiture, consequences of forged contracts and contract formation.

2. Environmental Lawsuits

Environmental organizations and some citizen groups are seeking to enforce environmental laws and regulations in an effort to protect the environment and the public from what the litigants perceive to be negative consequences of fracking. In some instances they are even seeking to restrict the use of hydraulic fracking until it is proven to be environmentally safe. A popular target among these litigants is federal and state regulatory bodies, such as the EPA, and federal statutes, such as the Clean Air Act.

3. Industry Lawsuits

The final category of lawsuits includes those brought by the industry against the government. Claimants have sought to challenge federal, state and local government actions that have impeded the industry’s ability to drill.

Fracking Lawsuits 2.0 – Transportation, Construction, Personal Injury and Beyond

The survey of current fracking lawsuits does not take into account the claims that will spin out of the new shale plays. In fact, the engineering and logistical side of the fracking process – not fracking itself – will lead to many more attendant claims.

  • Transportation: The survey of current fracking lawsuits does not take into account the claims that will spin out of the new shale plays. In fact, the engineering and logistical side of the fracking process – not fracking itself – will lead to many more attendant claims.
  • Commercial: Lessor involved in mineral disputes will lead to commercial claims. Many lessors will feel they were shorted, or want a better deal as those now positioned to lease their rights sign a more lucrative mineral-rights lease. Company-to-company disputes will also rise as the price of natural gas fluctuates.
  • Construction: The contractors and design professionals building the midstream facilities, among others, will lead to construction-defect and delay claims. Many states have recently adopted anti-indemnity statutes that will impact claims that arise during construction of midstream facilities, pipelines and other infrastructure-related construction projects.
  • Insurance: Coverage issues will arise as parties file first- and third-party claims for myriad reasons. Issues including comparative indemnity agreements, flow-through indemnity and additional insured endorsements, among others, will need to be analyzed.
  • Personal Injury: Additional workers drilling and working the wells will lead to an increase in personal injury and work-place accident claims. Many of the shale plays are located in what have traditionally been considered “plaintiff friendly” venues. A claim in Pennsylvania will have a different value than one located in Webb County, Texas.
  • Product Liability: The products and chemicals used to drill and extract the oil and gas will lead to product liability claims involving both personal and property damage. The BP Deep Water Horizon well-blowout in the Gulf of Mexico will not be lost on those involved in domestic oil and gas exploration.

How To Reduce Future Fracking Litigation Risk?

Parties can act now to discourage litigation or better position themselves in the event they are named in a suit.

1. Institute electronic records protocol

The proliferation of email and increased retention and archival capabilities means that emails never die. A potential defendant would be well served with a protocol in place that outlines to its employees what are acceptable electronic communications.

2. Strictly comply with fracking fluid disclosures

For those parties who could be exposed to claims regarding the fluids used during drilling, it is important that they minimize the public’s suspicion that they are withholding information about the fluids. The best way to neutralize that misconception is to strictly comply with the state-mandated disclosure rules where applicable. It may even behoove them to voluntarily disclose the fluids’ contents through the
companies’ websites.

3. Be prepared for a fire-drill

A party must be ready to quickly assert its position when a claim is brought. The best way to do so is to track current litigation. Following the cases will provide the company a preview as to what claims it may be subject to, and it also allows them to evaluate defenses. It may also enable the company to insulate itself from suit by avoiding certain actions. Along those same lines, knowing the facts, documents, emails, fact witnesses and expert witnesses will work to a party’s advantage. Some industry leaders have proactively retained experts even though they have not been sued.

4. Know your neighbors

Parties should view their neighbors as allies and potential jurors. To that end, it makes sense to open a dialogue about fracking with the regulators on a local, state and federal level. It would also benefit the parties to engage the community and publicize information about the benefits associated with fracking, e.g., jobs, lower energy prices, cleaner energy, energy independence, etc. Certain midstream players have rolled out a public education campaigns aimed at that very goal.

Conclusion

Articles on shale gas and fracking adorn the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. 60 Minutes runs stories on shale-gas drilling and the faux pundit Stephen Colbert discusses fracking’s impact on his tongue-and-cheek news show. The promise of profits, domestic jobs and energy independence has the country talking about the gas shale plays that dot the landscape. Fracking and all that it encompasses will serve as the backdrop for a variety of legal issues during the foreseeable future.

Joshua W. Mermis is a partner at Johnson, Trent, West & Taylor in Houston, Texas, where he primarily practices in construction and energy litigation. He received his B.A. from the University of Kansas and J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law. This article previously appeared in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of USLAW magazine.

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University of Texas Oil Connections

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This is a picture of the Santa Rita in the early 1920’s.

In 1883, the year UT was opened, an endowment was established by the state of Texas that donated 2.1 million acres in West Texas to help UT. Not much was expected of the desolate land besides to perhaps develop it for real estate. In the 1920’s curious men acquired drilling permits from UT, hoping to strike it rich. There were in fact huge oil discoveries. Oil from the Permian Basin has generously provided for the UT system. The PUF continues to receive royalties from oil and gas production in West Texas while the AUF, Available University Fund, continues to receive all surface lease income. Surface lease usually entails “grazing and easements for power lines and pipelines.”1

Big Lake Oilfield and Santa Rita #1 Oil Well

In 1919, Rupert P. Ricker started advertising the land given to UT for oil exploration. The UT alum had utilized a law passed two years earlier permitting state land to be chartered for oil exploration. Having trouble making the sale of 431,360 acres, Ricker turned to an army buddy, Frank T. Pickrell. The original price of the permits for the land and other processing fees was approximately $41,136; however Pickrell paid only $2,500 due to the approaching thirty day deadline for Ricker to make the sale. In 1921, Pickrell started making his runs desperately searching for Texas Tea.

Much to his delight, the Santa Rita #1 oil well produced oil on the final day before the permit expired. A group of Catholic women had large investments in the exploration; when they heard all of this, they wanted it called Santa Rita (“Patron of the Impossible”). But on May 25, 1923, Cromwell, with fellow worker Dee Locklin, decided to “shut down the well to keep reports tight while they leased surrounding acreage for themselves.”2

The oil well was a part of the Big Lake Oilfield. By 1926, the oilfield had already contributed $4 million to the PUF. In the beginning, the single oil well was producing around 3,000 barrels of oil daily. Different wells in the field also had success early on; “the No. 9 well’s initial daily production was 1,400 barrels, on June 24, 1924. The No. 10 came in with 1,840 barrels on July 11. But the No. 11, which began producing 3,600 barrels daily on July 31, proved the field’s productivity.”1

The Santa Rita had served its purpose to the UT system in its sixty-seven years. In 1990, the plug was pulled. The Texas State Historical Association had the original Santa Rita #1 rig moved to the UT campus, and it can be seen next to MLK Blvd between Trinity and San Jacinto streets.

Yates Oil Field

is one of the richest oil fields in the United States; it is rated in the top ten for overall production and second for reserves. Much like the Big Lake Oilfield, permits were granted by UT, and in turn, the school received royalties from the drilling in West Texas.

According to the DrillingInfo website, Yates has over 1 billion barrels left in reserves, which is the largest amount of reserves in the entire nation with the exception of the mammoth Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. It continues to produce around 20,000 barrels of oil per day and around 85,000 MCF (thousand cubic feet) of gas daily. In 1998, it was reported that a research team named Golder Associates of Redmond, Washington was attempting to discover ways to maximize production using natural drainage systems. “Very effective gravity drainage, combined with a secondary gas-cap expansion drive is responsible for the estimated ultimate recovery of 50 percent of the original oil in place.”3 The oil field is so well maintained since it contributes so much to the University.

Bibliography

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