The reason oil companies have gone bankrupt over the past few years is not due to “historically low oil and natural gas prices” as stated in this article.
Here is a long term inflation adjusted price chart:
The real reason energy companies are going bankrupt is more technical.
Reserve base lending for unconventional reservoir projects became a ponzi scheme. This is how it works.
Step 1) An oil company borrows money or issues equity to drill a well.
Step 2) The well “discovers” oil. The reason I put discover in quotations is that the resource (not reserve, there is a difference) potential of shale source rocks has been known for decades.
Step 3) Estimate the resource and reserve potential.
NB: Resource is properly defined as uneconomic at the current price.
Reserve is properly defined as economic at the current price.
Step 4) Book the reserve as an asset on the balance sheet as per SEC legislation.
Step 5) Borrow money against the reserve.
Step 6) Drill more wells and book more reserves and borrow more money.
Step 7) Repeat until you cannot repeat again.
This process was not always a ponzi scheme. Before the mantra of peak oil and the fear the world as running out of oil this practice was done conservatively. But when the idea that world was short of crude supply the thinking became that oil was a one way trade. This gave Wall Street the confidence that lending money against high cost reserves to develop more high cost reserves was a sound practice. On the other side of the transaction little thought by producers was given to the scenarios that would cause these reserves revert to resources and be treated differently on their balance sheet.
Furthering the Ponzi scheme was Central Bank policies of zero percent interest rates. This cheap source of funds decreased the discount rates for cash flow streams, increasing the net present value and distorting the time value of money calculation for these type of projects.
Under this strategy developing more reserves meant more debt. When prices reverted to the mean, reserves became resources and these companies became insolvent as resources are not the same quality asset as reserves and are treated differently under SEC legislation.
Exacerbating the problem was now these producers have to maximize cash flow to cover the interest cost which creates more excess supply and more downward pressure on prices turning more reserves back into resources impairing more balance sheets and strengthening the negative feedback loop.
The bankruptcies happening today are the result of historically high oil prices, a this time is different type thinking and central bank distortions, but not low prices.