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Why Billions in Proven Shale Oil Reserves Suddenly Became Unproven

From our friends at Bloomberg:

Ultra Petroleum Corp. was a shale success story. A former penny stock that made the big leagues, it was worth almost $15 billion at its 2012 peak.

Then came the bust. Almost half of Ultra’s reserves were erased from its books this year. The company filed for bankruptcy on April 29 owing $3.9 billion.

Ultra’s rise and fall isn’t unique. Proven reserves — gas and oil resources that are among the best measures of a company’s ability to reward its shareholders and repay its debts — are disappearing across the shale patch. This year, 59 U.S. oil and gas companies deleted the equivalent of 9.2 billion barrels, more than 20 percent of their inventories, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. It’s by far the largest amount since 2009, when the Securities and Exchange Commission tweaked a rule to make it easier for producers to claim wells that wouldn’t be drilled for years.

 Wider Effort

The SEC routinely questions companies about their reserves. Now, agency investigators are also on the hunt for inflated reserves estimates, according to a person familiar with the matter.

“Reserves make up a large share of the value of these companies, so it really matters,” said David Woodcock, a partner at Jones Day in Dallas who served as the SEC regional director in Fort Worth, Texas, from 2011 to 2015. “They’re looking even more closely at how companies are booking reserves, how they’re evaluating the quality of those reserves and what their intentions really are. They’re not accepting pat answers.”

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