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As ATP Oil Files For Bankruptcy, CEO Blames Obama For Company’s Collapse

Christopher Helman, Forbes Staff

I’m based in Houston, Texas, energy capital of the world.

Paul Buhlman swears the president’s ban on deepwater drilling killed his oil company. The whole story is a bit more complex.

(This story will appear in the Sept. 11, 2012 issue of Forbes Magazine)

When I get Paul Bulmahn on the phone rumors are swirling that he’s just days from putting his company, ATP Oil & Gas, into Chapter 11. He can’t confirm it yet, but he wants to make one thing perfectly clear: If it does come to bankruptcy (which it did on August 17) it isn’t his fault. The founder and chairman of publicly traded ATP (Nasdaq:ATPG), Bulmahn wants the world to know that the Obama Administration—and its illegal ban on deepwater drilling in the wake of the BP disaster—is to blame for the implosion of his company. Not him.

“It is all directly attributable to what the government did to us,” he rails. “This Administration has gone out of its way to create problems for my company, the company that I formed from scratch.” He’s more than angry. Bulmahn, 68, has already brought suit against the U.S. government seeking damages ($68 million to start with) for the 2010 moratorium that shut down deepwater operations in the Gulf of Mexico for the better part of a year. In an earlier case brought by ATP and rig company Ensco, Federal District Judge Martin Feldman ruled in May 2011 that the feds “acted unlawfully by unreasonably delaying action” on drilling permit applications. Still, ATP has a long, winding road to any hope of recovering damages from the government (which says it’s protected from claims by sovereign immunity).

That’s proving disastrous for Bulmahn. While hundreds of companies with operations in the gulf were affected by the government’s decision, perhaps no other was as hard hit as ATP—or as vulnerable. In 2010 the company had completed work on its $800 million deepwater production platform Titan and floated it out to the deepwater Telemark field 160 miles south of New Orleans. Bulmahn planned for Titan to complete drilling the final feet of four wells, hook them up, and let the oil—and the cash—start rolling in.

On April 19, 2010 ATP refinanced and rolled up $1.5 billion in debt into a new bond issue “and celebrated with champagne.” He says that at the time ATP stood a good chance of doubling its oil and gas volumes to 50,000 barrels per day within a year.

But the Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20. “We didn’t foresee an impact. The Titan is 80 miles farther south, and the spill is going to drift to the north,” says Bulmahn. Underwriter JPMorgan agreed, and it closed on the bond offering.

Soon ATP was informed by regulators that it would not be allowed to complete those Telemark wells, even though Titan was already outfitted with all the safety redun- dancies subsequently required for deepwater work. “They closed our spigot on revenues, but didn’t stop our expenses” for interest payments, rig contracts and the like. Bulmahn scrambled to spin off Titan as a subsidiary and borrowed $350 million more against it. ATP posted a net loss of $349 million in 2010.

It hasn’t gotten much better since. Overleveraged, ATP was balanced on a knife edge. The final Telemark wells didn’t get hooked up until earlier this year. Meanwhile, ATP has been burning through cash on what appears to be an ill-advised exploratory drilling campaign off Israel. In the past year ATP has lost $250 million on $600 million in revenues and now heads into bankruptcy, crushed by $2.7 billion in long-term debt and obligations and $300 million in annual interest payments. Bulmahn’s shares used to be worth $400 million; now they’re worthless.

But, say those who know ATP, you can only blame the Obama Administration for so much of the drama. “The moratorium had an effect on a lot of companies, but this is the only one blaming the moratorium two years later,” says an oil executive with direct knowledge of ATP.

Ravi Kamath, high-yield analyst with Global Hunter Securities, has been bearish on ATP for years and had a sell rating on ATP debt since early 2011, when it was trading at 104 cents on the dollar. It’s fallen to 29 cents now. Kamath says ATP’s problems reach far beyond the moratorium. He keeps a spreadsheet with 105 instances from the past decade where he says ATP has overpromised and then underdelivered. “Bulmahn has said lots of stuff that never happened,” says Kamath. “They have 11 years of bad forecasts.”

The first Telemark well was hooked up to Titan before the BP blowout, “but the project was already a year behind schedule and over budget.” Multiyear delays were normal at other ATP fields, too. What’s more, in August 2011 ATP said the third Telemark well was going to deliver 7,000 barrels per day. One month later the well was doing only 3,500. “With their cost of capital it’s just crazy to invest hundreds of millions to build a platform from scratch,” says Kamath. “They live in fantasyland.”

Yet instead of slashing costs and circling wagons, Bulmahn in late 2010 chose to take ATP on an international adventure. “I felt the need to find a way to keep our technically expert people occupied,” he says. That meant forging a deal with Isramco to drill an exploratory well offshore of Israel, near an area that has seen some massive natural gas discoveries. One well was finished in June; drilled to a depth of 14,000 feet it tapped as much as 800 billion cubic feet of gas. Sounds good, but it will be years before the infrastructure can be put in place to harvest it. Meanwhile ATP has $40 million in costs sunk off the coast of Israel.

Bulmahn says he’d like to retire; he owns a horse farm in Florida and has cashed out $100 million in ATP stock over the years (though, he insists, he’s eschewed $7 million in bonuses granted him since 2009). Earlier in 2012 he hired Matt McCarroll as ATP’s new CEO. McCarroll had expanded deepwater operator Dynamic Offshore Resources and sold it to SandRidge Energy for $1.3 billion. Yet after a week at ATP McCarroll left and rescinded his agreement to buy 1 million shares. The belief is that McCarroll was scared off by Bulmahn’s unwillingness to back a complete overhaul of ATP. Trying to salvage the status quo wasn’t an option. “He wasn’t the right fit,” says Bulmahn. McCarroll declined comment.

So what happens to ATP from here? They have already secured $600 million in debtor-in-possession financing, but after first-lien holders like Michael Dell’s MSD Capital are paid off, that won’t get it very far. Analysts say investors holding common shares, preferreds, convertible bonds and unsecured debt will get wiped out. Buyout bids are welcome.

So at this point, legal claims might be the most valuable asset ATP has left. In addition to the case pending against the U.S. government, ATP is pursuing claims against deep-pocketed BP. Who knows? With luck and lawyers, Bulmahn could still strike something.

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More from the archives:

Texas Oilman Tired Of Being Victimized By Obama Drilling Ban

ATP Oil To Explore Near New Israeli Mega-Discoveries

Will ATP Have Better Luck In Israel Than The Gulf Of Mexico?

Obama Re-Bans Drilling Off Florida

USA: ATP Resumes Recompletion Works at Telemark Hub

ATP Oil & Gas Corporation today announced that it has resumed recompletion operations at the Mississippi Canyon (MC) 941 A-2 well at the company’s Telemark Hub. The recompletion was suspended while the company recovered a piece of tubing that was stuck in the casing.

All of the tubing has now been removed from the casing. The MC 941 A-2 recompletion operations to perforate and frac-pack the B upper and lower sands are expected to conclude during second quarter 2012. MC 941 is located in the Mirage Field at the Telemark Hub location utilizing the ATP Titan floating drilling and production platform.

ATP operates the ATP Titan and Telemark Hub which is in approximately 4,000 feet of water with a 100% working interest and holds a 100% ownership in ATP Titan LLC which owns the ATP Titan and associated pipelines and infrastructure.

ATP Oil & Gas is an international offshore oil and gas development and production company with operations in the Gulf of Mexico, Mediterranean Sea and the North Sea. The company trades publicly as ATPG on the NASDAQ Global Select Market. For more information about ATP Oil & Gas Corporation.

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USA: Oil Flows at Telemark

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ATP Oil & Gas Corporation has reported first oil production at its Mississippi Canyon (“MC”) Block 942 A-3 (#2) well, the fourth well at its Telemark Hub.

The oil production rates are gradually being increased as the well goes through the initial stages of production. The early production rate performance has met expectations and the rate of oil production is being increased. Further information will be reported as it becomes available. The MC 942 A-3 well is located on the Morgus Field and is the fourth well brought on production at the Telemark Hub location utilizing the ATP Titan floating drilling and production platform.

ATP operates the deepwater Telemark Hub in approximately 4,000 feet of water with a 100% working interest and holds a 100% ownership in ATP Titan LLC which owns the ATP Titan and associated pipelines and infrastructure.

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