2020 hasn’t been kind to the energy sector, and a growing wave of energy bankruptcies has started to build.
After a difficult year marred by rising geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and crude prices in the $50-60 per barrel range, analysts warned that the energy sector needed a strong recovery to offset a rising (and expiring) mountain of debt.
Instead, the oil patch has seen one bombshell after another, and the impacts are adding up.
Fueling the wave’s growth
The new year opened with a U.S. attack on a top-ranking Iranian general in Baghdad, followed by an Iranian counterattack on two bases in Iraq that hosted U.S. military personnel.
Then, the energy industry worried that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) wouldn’t renew its production deal with non-member countries, causing increased production and negative pressure on crude prices.
All the while, the threat of covid-19 grew and started to spread. In March, the new coronavirus hit markets hardest, right as the OPEC+ deal collapsed. Russia and Saudi Arabia subsequently flooded the markets with cheap oil, starting a price war to drive out competition.
What developed was the perfect storm of nonexistent demand matched up against oversupply. Crude prices plummeted and hit a historic sub-zero low on April 20th, with futures for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) Crude closing at -$37.63.
The wave’s initial damage
Now, following a renewed OPEC+ deal limiting production agreed upon on April 9th and slowly restarting economies driving up crude demand, prices have started to tick up.
Unfortunately, the damage has already been done and will take a long time to recover. By charting the sector’s bankruptcies over the first half of 2020—tracked by law firm Haynes and Boone, LLP for the U.S. and Insolvency Insider for Canada—we can see the wave start to swell:
For oil and gas producers, the second quarter of 2020 saw 18 bankruptcies, the highest quarterly total since 2016.
So far, they’re largely centered in the U.S., which saw a boom of surface-level shale oil production in the 2010’s to take advantage of rising crude prices. As prices have dropped, many heavily leveraged companies have started to run out of options.
The biggest victim in the first half of 2020 was Chesapeake Energy, a shale giant that declared bankruptcy on June 28 with more than $9 billion in debt.
Canada has also seen an uptick in energy bankruptcies, especially after facing years of stiff competition from U.S. shale producers. However, the number of cases in Canada is far fewer than in the United States.
One reason is that companies staved off bankruptcy or receivership in four of the seven insolvency cases in Canada since January 2020, at least temporarily. Instead, they are seeking protection under the country’s Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act, giving them a chance to restructure and avoid insolvency.
A prolonged fallout
Another reason for the discrepancy in bankruptcy numbers is timing. The energy sector faced its biggest challenges in 2015/2016, causing many companies to take on debt.
Unfortunately, much of that debt is starting to expire, or becoming too difficult to pay off in the current market conditions.
That’s why, despite the wave of bankruptcies caused by covid-19 gaining steam, the wave will continue well into 2020 and likely beyond.
July has already seen more companies declaring bankruptcy or seeking creditor protection. The question is, how many more are waiting to surface?