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Small oil-and-gas companies get cold shoulder from large banks

New York 

THE largest banking lenders to the oil and gas sector are becoming more cautious, marking down their expectations for oil and gas prices that underpin loans in a move expected to put further financial stress on struggling producers, industry and banking sources said.

Major banks including JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, and Royal Bank of Canada have, as part of regular biannual reviews, cut their estimated values for oil-and-gas companies' reserves, which serve as the basis for those companies to receive reserve-based loans (RBLs), according to more than a dozen sources familiar with the activity.

While the size of the RBL market is unclear, it is estimated that a few hundred companies take such loans, with the cumulative size in the billions of dollars.

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Those lenders have marked down the perceived value for both oil and natural gas for the coming five years, with the changes kicking in as early as this month.

Expected natural gas prices have been cut by around US$0.50 per million British thermal units, about 20 per cent below levels set in the spring. Industry sources are forecasting some firms face a 15 to 30 per cent reduction in loan size as a result. Oil prices are expected to be about US$1 to US$2 lower than spring estimates.

"Some banks believe they have too much energy exposure and want to reduce some of this risk," said Ian Rainbolt, vice-president of finance at Warwick Energy, a private equity firm with upstream investments in Oklahoma and Texas.

That is a threat to smaller companies, which are already struggling to find other methods of financing - such as issuing stock or bonds - as investors grow restless with years of poor returns in the shale sector even as the United States has risen to become the world's largest oil and gas producer.

Reduced funding could slow growth in US oil and gas production, and also threaten more bankruptcies in the sector.

Bankruptcy filings among US oil and gas producers are at levels not seen since 2016, when US crude slumped to US$26 per barrel, according to law firm Haynes and Boone.

Companies heavily focused on natural gas drilling may be the most threatened. "I expect the biggest issues to be with over-leveraged natural gas producers, especially those without firm transportation in geographically disadvantaged areas," said Brock Hudson, managing director at investment bank Carl Marks Advisors, who referenced companies in Appalachia, the Rockies and parts of Oklahoma.

Smaller RBLs can have huge consequences: Alta Mesa Resources, an Oklahoma-focused producer headed by former Anadarko Petroleum chairman Jim Hackett, filed for bankruptcy a month after its borrowing base was slashed by almost half in mid-August.

A number of banks, including JP Morgan, Wells Fargo, and Comerica Inc, declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment. REUTERS