Is the U.S. Fracking Boom Based on Fraud?

As more and more players in the fracking industry run out of options and file for bankruptcy, investors are beginning to ask questions about why all the money is gone.

By Justin Mikulka and cross-posted from DeSmogBlog.

In a 2016 interview with Fraud Magazine, former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow explained what he thought made him so successful while at the former energy corporation that’s now infamous for financial scandal.

“I think my ability to do structured financing, to finance things off-balance sheet and to find ways to manipulate financial statements — there’s no nice way to say it. Like I said at the conference, I was good at finding loopholes.”

As Fastow explained, in finance, the difference between a loophole and fraud isn’t always easy to identify. And that may be something the U.S. fracking industry is working to its advantage.

Fastow, the convicted fraudster, does admit that what they did at Enron misled investors. “We created something that was monstrously misleading, but any one of those deals alone wasn’t necessarily considered fraudulent,” he said.

Fast-forward to today and a different part of the energy industry: The U.S. shale oil and gas industry has lost more than a quarter trillion dollars since 2007, while being sold to investors as an economic boom, even at oil prices much lower than those of recent years. Does that financial mismatch seem misleading? Or perhaps, familiar?

In an unexpected twist, Fastow now gives talks to the energy industry on ethical leadership.

Sounding the Alarm

Bethany McLean was the first reporter to question whether Enron was a financially sound company in a 2001 article for Fortune magazine. McLean went on to co-author the book The Smartest Guys in the Room, which documented the fall of Enron due to its fraudulent practices, including the ones Fastow engineered.

In 2018, McLean also published the book Saudi America, which highlighted many of the financial challenges the fracking industry has faced. In a recent interview for Texas Monthly’s podcast Boomtown, McLean explained one of the very accepted and blatantly misleading practices of the fracking industry:

I’d raise a couple of points. One is that companies have long hyped these break-even numbers. They say we can break even at $25 a barrel, we can break even at $20 a barrel. And then you look at their consolidated financial statements and they are losing money. And so something is going wrong … the people called it to me [sic] … corporate math or investor economics. So they were trying to put together these investor pitch decks that would show investors a set of economics that weren’t real. So they would show you that they could break even on a well at $25 barrel of oil but then yet you’d go to the corporate financial statements and they were losing money.

Is that a loophole? Where you can openly misrepresent to investors the financial reality of your business? Or is it fraud?

As more and more players in the fracking industry run out of options and file for bankruptcy, investors are beginning to ask questions about why all the money is gone

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