After making billions of dollars poisoning groundwater, causing illnesses, triggering earthquakes and destroying lives and communities, fracking companies are becoming victims of their own success. It turns out that they’ve done their jobs too well.
Just a few years ago, there was so much demand for oil and natural gas that new fracking companies were popping up all over the place. The competition was fierce, as small, private startup companies lined up to enter the industry. It was an echo of the “Dot-Com Boom” back at the turn of the century – and as it was then, so it is now. The fracking industry is imploding. Speaking with the Wall Street Journal, IHS Energy consultant Caldwell Bailey summed it up succinctly: “Everybody kind of went crazy.”
As the exploitation of new gas and oil reserves created a glut of supplies and demand fell in the wake of recession, the bottom dropped out of the market. As a result, five fracking companies have filed for bankruptcy or have ceased operations – and dozens of others are on the edge. Currently, at least 50% of US fracking operations have become dormant, and 55,000 workers have been laid off worldwide. For those fracking companies remaining, projects are becoming fewer and farther between; the number of available jobs has fallen by 40% since last year. Furthermore, the value of those services has plummeted by about 35%.
It gets worse for these smaller surviving companies: their stocks are falling in value (in some cases by as much as 75%), making it increasingly difficult to raise capital. Small-to-medium fracking companies are finding harder to get credit as regulators and bankers argue over reserve-based loans that use energy supplies as collateral.
Some in the industry are clinging to hopes of a rebound. A year ago, oil was trading at well over $100 a barrel. Today, it’s around $45. According to analysts at the World Bank, oil could go back to $57 a barrel by the end of the year – and as expensive oil rigs are shut down and geopolitical uncertainty continues, that figure might go higher. However, at the same time, natural gas prices have continued to slump – and there are still factors that could continue to keep a lid on the price of a barrel of oil. Economist John Baffes, lead author of the World Bank report, Commodity Markets Outlook, told CNBC, “Despite the marginal increase in the price forecast for 2015, large inventories and rising output from OPEC members suggest prices will likely remain weak in the medium-term.”
In other words – struggling fracking companies shouldn’t get their hopes up, at least for the near future. On the bright side, now that fewer companies are injecting toxic chemicals into the ground in order to break up shale formations, those living nearby who have had to endure the environmental and geologic consequences of the relentless drive to access new gas and oil reserves may finally get a break – for awhile, anyway.