The White House is strongly considering pushing federal assistance for oil and natural gas producers hit by plummeting oil prices amid the coronavirus outbreak, as industry officials close to the administration clamor for help, according to four people familiar with internal deliberations.
White House officials are alarmed at the prospect that numerous shale companies, many of them deep in debt, could be driven out of business if the downturn in oil prices turns into a prolonged crisis for the industry. The federal assistance is likely to take the form of low-interest government loans to the shale companies, whose lines of credit to major financial institutions have been choked off, three people said.
Trump and advisers have been taking calls since Monday from concerned energy sector allies, who have voiced concern and at times exasperation not only about oil prices, but also privately warning against the administration supporting any sweeping paid sick leave policy, according to a major GOP donor and a White House official familiar with the discussions. These people spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss private conversations.
Even major oil companies are threatened by the oil price slump. Occidental Petroleum on Tuesday slashed its dividend to 11 cents a share from 79 cents and cut capital spending by a third. Oil prices staged a partial rebound Tuesday after plummeting the day before.
Trump said at a news conference Monday that the administration will seek to provide help for parts of the economy hard hit by the coronavirus, including the hospitality, cruise and travel industries. A senior administration official said Tuesday the shale industry would probably be included for help but may not be at the top of the list for assistance.
One of the companies hardest hit was Continental Resources, founded by Harold Hamm, a Trump supporter and an adviser to the president on energy issues. It lost more than half of its market value Monday, though it recovered about 8 percent by midday Tuesday. Hamm’s 77 percent personal stake in the company lost $2 billion of its value Monday.
Hamm said in an interview Tuesday he had reached out to the administration but had not made “direct" contact. He said that the administration should consider using laws on illegal dumping to prevent Russia and Saudi Arabia from slashing prices of oil sold in the United States.
Hamm said the administration should consider “any action that the administration might take to protect and preserve American interests at this time from being unfairly disadvantaged by whatever government — and we’re talking governments here, whether it be Russia or Saudi Arabia.”
“I don’t want to prescribe what the president would or shouldn’t do. He’s very capable of handling this situation,” he said. But Hamm said he wanted to discuss the number of jobs at stake and “how this could jeopardize those jobs and the economies in producing states and communities across America, from Pennsylvania to California and Texas to North Dakota.”
He added that while Continental was in strong financial condition, other companies would be likely to draw on a government lending program. “For some companies in this sector, that could be helpful," he said.
It is unclear exactly what form a federal program would take. “It’s one area we will be looking at for targeted assistance,” one senior administration official said. Another senior administration official confirmed the relief for shale companies was under consideration but cautioned political blowback over the idea may eventually lead campaign advisers and others in administration to talk Trump out of it.
Mike Sommers, CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, told reporters Monday that the oil and gas industry is not seeking a bailout. Anne Bradbury, CEO of AXPC, which represents the top 25 independent oil and gas producers in the U.S., said in a statement that shale producers were willing to “work with our nation’s leaders on a solution” that ensures low-cost energy. “We believe in the free market system and will advocate for policies that support a level playing field to address geopolitical manipulation of the market,” Bradbury said. Bradbury later said in a follow-up interview that “we are not seeking a bailout.”
The Energy Department on Tuesday postponed the start of a sale from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which would have driven crude prices down further. Although the reserve once held 727 million barrels, Congress passed legislation that requires the government to sell parts of the reserve at regular intervals to help cover the federal deficit and cover the cost of the reserve’s maintenance and upgrades.
“Given current oil markets, this is not the optimal time for the sale,” an Energy Department spokesman said.
American Petroleum Institute chief executive Mike Sommers said that “We were pleased that the administration decided not to begin a sale of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve today. That would have sent a really bad market signal.” The reserve, which currently holds 635 million barrels, should be held “for severe supply disruptions,” Sommers said.
Speaking at the ninth annual Shale Insight Conference in Pittsburgh last year, Trump said shale production is “saving energy producers millions of dollars in compliance costs, while maintaining sterling environmental standards.” Trump said of the domestic shale industry: “We set an economic boom of truly historic proportions, bringing prosperity back to cities and towns all across America.”
The boom in U.S. production over the past decade has come in U.S. shale, a layer of oil-bearing rock that when fractured releases oil or natural gas that had been locked up. Unlike traditional reservoirs, which flow for years or decades, shale wells produce most of their oil or gas in 18 to 24 months, requiring constant new drilling.
Moody’s Investor Service reports that oil and gas firms have $40 billion in debt coming due this year. Given the sector’s shaky outlook, investors have been reluctant to put more money into the industry.
Falling demand linked to the covid-19 epidemic has put pressure on oil prices. Last week, Saudi Arabia pushed hard for a reduction in the amount of oil produced by OPEC nations and those, such as Russia, that are aligned with OPEC. But Russia balked, and Saudi Arabia then turned 180 degrees and announced a sharp increase in production, intended to drive prices down. Oil fell to nearly $30 a barrel Monday but recovered somewhat Tuesday. On Tuesday, the kingdom said it would begin producing 12 million barrels a day starting April 1, up more than 2 million barrels from current levels.
Russian oil officials said they saw no point in cutting production if the main beneficiaries would be American shale producers.
But help for oil and gas producers may prove a politically difficult lift for the administration, in part because they faced sagging prices even before the coronavirus outbreak, some experts said. It may be hard to sort out which sectors are deserving of help, as the coronavirus risks plunging the entire U.S. economy into recession.
“It’s difficult when governments selectively target individual industries,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG Union Bank. “And there’s going to be pushback on it because it’s political and may be tied to the administration’s contacts and the people it knows.”
Some economists also oppose providing assistance to companies rather than ensuring it goes to workers hit by a downturn. Liberal economists, such as former Obama administration official Jason Furman, have said the administration should provide a tax rebate that goes out to millions of workers.
“We are in the midst of a crisis where people are literally having to skip work and may miss paychecks or face medical debt” because of coronavirus, said Robert Hockett, a professor at Cornell University who has advised Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on economic policy. “The idea you would look to help out shale companies now is like something out of a satire or a bad movie. It’s absurd.”
Still, even some liberals suggested they may be able to support the idea. Jared Bernstein, who served as an economic adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden, said the Obama administration propped up many firms with low-interest loans during the 2008 financial crisis and said such an idea may make sense.
“I have no problem with helping firms beset by what’s going on, particularly those taking a sharp cash flow hit," Bernstein said. “I would just prefer to do a loan guarantee rather than a cash transfer bailout process we did with Wall Street.”
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.