Lee Tillman, chief executive officer of Marathon Oil Corp., told investors last month that the company was potentially sitting on the equivalent of 4.3 billion barrels in its U.S. shale acreage.
That number was 5.5 times higher than the proved reserves Marathon reported to federal regulators.
Such discrepancies are rife in the U.S. shale industry. Drillers use bigger forecasts to sell the hydraulic fracturing boom to investors and to persuade lawmakers to lift the 39-year-old ban on crude exports. Sixty-two of 73 U.S. shale drillers reported one estimate in mandatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission while citing higher potential figures to the public, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Pioneer Natural Resources (PXD:US) Co.’s estimate was 13 times higher. Goodrich Petroleum Corp.’s was 19 times. For Rice Energy Inc., it was almost 27-fold.
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“They’re running a great risk of litigation when they don’t end up producing anything like that,” said John Lee, a University of Houston petroleum engineering professor who helped write the SEC rules and has taught reserves evaluation to a generation of engineers. “If I were an ambulance-chasing lawyer, I’d get into this.”
Experienced investors know the difference between the two numbers, Scott Sheffield, chairman and CEO of Irving, Texas-based Pioneer, said in an interview.
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“Shareholders understand,” Sheffield said. “We’re owned 95 percent by institutions. Now the American public is going into the mutual funds, so they’re trusting what those institutions are doing in their homework.”
Investors poured $16.3 billion in the first seven months of the year into mutual funds and exchange-traded funds focused on energy companies, including drillers that create fractures in rocks by injecting fluid into cracks to enable more oil and gas to flow out of the formation. That’s almost twice as much as in the same period last year, bringing total assets to $128.2 billion, according to New York-based Strategic Insight.
U.S. oil production surged to a 28-year high in 2014, bolstering the companies’ sales pitch and contributing to a 20 percent drop in American oil prices since the end of June. U.S. output is expected to grow 12 percent next year, to the highest level since 1970, according to the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy. At the same time, U.S. consumption will shrink 0.2 percent this year, the EIA said.
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Marathon’s Tillman, who was speaking at the Barclays Plc CEO Energy-Power Conference in New York on Sept. 3, said there are “risk and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from those expressed or implied by” his comments. Many company presentations remind investors that publicly announced estimates are more speculative than the numbers the drillers file with the SEC.
Figures the company executives cite during presentations “are used in the capital allocation process, and are a standard tool the investment community understands and relies on in assessing a company’s performance and value,” said Lisa Singhania, a Marathon spokeswoman. The Houston-based company’s shares have risen 1.6 percent in the last year.
The SEC requires drillers to provide an annual accounting of how much oil and gas their properties will produce, a measurement called proved reserves, and company executives must certify that the reports are accurate.
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No such rules apply to appraisals that drillers pitch to the public, sometimes called resource potential. In public presentations, unregulated estimates included wells that would lose money, prospects that have never been drilled, acreage that won’t be tapped for decades and projects whose likelihood of success is less than 10 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The result is a case for U.S. energy self-sufficiency that’s based more on hope than fact.
Judy Burns, a spokeswoman for the SEC, declined to comment on what drillers say during investor presentations.
A Rice Energy spokeswoman declined to comment on the difference between the numbers. A spokesman for Houston-based Goodrich Petroleum didn’t return calls and e-mails seeking a comment on the subject.
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Predicting how much oil can be pumped out of shale has been controversial since the boom began about a decade ago. Companies combined horizontal drilling with fracking, or hydraulic fracturing. Fracking involves blasting water, sand and chemicals into deep underground layers of shale rock to free hydrocarbons.