The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The big bust in the oil fields

Scenes from a once-booming oil industry gone bad

TILDEN, TX-MAR 01: Terry Swift wanders the grounds at a Swift Energy drilling site. This particular well was the third one that was drilled in the Eagle Ford Shale area. It was drilled in the year 2000. As (per barrel) oil prices dropped these past months, many Texas drilling companies (and the local towns where they operated) suffered dramatic financial losses. Among those hit hard was the Houston based Swift Energy Company which has filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection. Terry E. Swift is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Swift Energy Company. He is now struggling to keep the company going that was founded by his father in 1979. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

TILDEN, Tex. — He’d borrowed from banks and investors and retirement funds, all in a frenzied mission to drill for oil and gas, and by the time Terry Swift realized he’d gone too far, this was his debt: $1.349 billion.

His company, founded by his father almost 40 years earlier, had plunged into bankruptcy and laid off 25 percent of its staff. Its shares had been pulled from the New York Stock Exchange. And now Swift was in a company Chevrolet Tahoe, driving back to the flat and dusty place where his bets had gone bust.

Swift was coming to this energy-rich strip of South Texas trying to grapple with how much blame he shouldered for the failure of his company. A low-key and historically cautious oil chief executive who eschews private jets and orders low-fat salads for lunch, he had made what he thought was the best financial move of the past decade — a gamble on rising oil prices — and yet was ensnared in an industry-wide craze of dangerous debt.

“Maybe we were wrong to believe there wouldn’t be a bust this bad,” Swift, 60, said, as the Tahoe rumbled south of San Antonio. “It didn’t even feel risky.”

Swift’s miscalculation has made his company, Swift Energy, a casualty of the greatest wave of financial defaults since America’s subprime mortgage crisis ravaged the U.S. economy. For him, it’s a painful low point in his family’s 111-year journey in American oil, one that started when his great-grandfather set up a series of storage tanks in the plains outside of Tulsa. And it’s a jarring reversal from just a few years ago, when Swift felt as if he’d taken his company to a pinnacle by capitalizing on a massive surge in U.S. energy production — one that promised an era of American energy independence thanks to revolutionary new technologies.

Graphic: The end of the U.S. oil boom, told through one Texas firm's bust

This new wave of bad loans isn’t the same magnitude of the housing bust, but it reflects similar behaviors. Borrowers feasted on what Bloomberg estimates was $237 billion of easy money without scrutinizing whether the loans could endure a drastic downturn. The consequences are far-reaching: The U.S. oil industry, having grown into a giant on par with Saudi Arabia’s, is shrinking, with the biggest collapse in investment in energy in 25 years. More than 140,000 have lost energy jobs. Banks are bracing for tens of billions of dollars of defaults, and economists and lawyers predict the financial wreckage will accelerate this year.

South Texas, along with North Dakota, had been the testing grounds for the industry’s ambitions, a place where shale oil and gas companies had taken on billions in loans to support more drilling and fracking. The strategy was to gather up drilling sites at turbo-speed and later slow down and reap the benefits. But then, oil prices plunged and stayed down. They’ve fallen 60 percent from two years ago.

“It was drill-drill-drill,” said Fadel Gheit, an analyst at Oppenheimer, an investment bank. “Every Tom, Dick and Harry was trying to become an oil baron. Now all of a sudden you say, my God. All these people spent beyond their means.”

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As Swift arrived in Tilden, the site of some of Swift Energy’s fields in South Texas, the signs of decay were everywhere. Scrubby two-lane roads once clogged with heavy-duty vehicles were almost empty. Roadside hotels that sprang up to meet demand — including one that once was booked solid for a year by Halliburton — had vacant parking lots and dust glazing the windows. McMullen County, where tens of thousands had worked every day at the peak, had shriveled back to a quiet place of 800.

The Tahoe turned onto a straight country road and headed toward Swift Energy’s field office, a series of trailers that were the base for its drilling operations. Little paddles of cactus nuzzled a fence that ran alongside the road, and Swift spotted a few cows near the entrance, the only visible activity along the horizon.

“We’ll have to chase ’em out,” he said.

He was quiet for a moment, pausing on what had transpired.

“You know the thing that’s disappointing,” he said. “All the wealth that was created — it dried up.”

Ambitions fueled by debt

America’s great energy boom resulted not simply from gains made by the established giants — ExxonMobil and Chevron — but rather from the rise of hundreds of smaller companies. And those smaller companies grew with debt, using it to drill 8,000 feet into the earth’s crust and 10,000 feet across, renting equipment, pumping in millions of pounds of sand, and creating fractures that released oil and natural gas.

This was hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” the technology that, in the middle of the last decade, allowed companies to reach oil and gas that was previously inaccessible. Companies had a choice: either borrow to enter the fracking race or stay on the sidelines and risk losing out.

Most, including Swift, chose to frack.

That decision, multiplied across hundreds of producers, has caused U.S. oil production to nearly double since 2007. And while politicians and executives celebrated that new capacity — dramatically reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil — few discussed the dangerous financial risks.

The industry’s debt, after all, had also nearly doubled. Producers like Swift didn’t think this was a bubble: Instead, they saw a new chapter in American energy — one in which technology had helped expand the market permanently at a time of global energy needs, led by China.

“Not that the industry was bust-proof, but the cycles maybe wouldn’t be as deep,” Swift recalled. It was a profoundly wrong call.

“By the time this is over,” he said, “this might be the worst of all the busts.”

Swift had been in the oil industry since graduating from the University of Houston with a degree in chemical engineering in 1979. He started off in Texas for a few years and then in 1981 joined the company run by his father, Aubrey Earl Swift, who died in 2006. There, he was initially dispatched to work overnight shifts in West Virginia. He called himself a geological nerd and happily talks for hours about rock formations and sonic mapping tools.

“It gets in your DNA,” Swift said.

Before fracking, Swift Energy had been a medium-size player — operating conventional oil and gas wells in Louisiana and Texas — that had relied on much the same formula for more than a decade. It kept its debt to a minimum. It drilled somewhere between 30 to 70 wells per year. It also had owned some previously sleepy tracts in South Texas’s Eagle Ford, an area that, with fracking, looked like America’s next energy moneymaker. Swift felt his company, which had experimented with fracking when the technique was less common and less reliable, had lucked out.

“The play was getting bigger and bigger,” Swift said. “So our vision was, we could do this.”

As the company began to frack more often, the amount it spent on exploration and drilling skyrocketed by hundreds of millions of dollars. To cover that spending, Swift Energy issued three separate packages of bonds worth $875 million. It also had a credit line of $500 million from JPMorgan. All together, the more than $1 billion debt represented an amount so large that if the company had combined its profits from its 20 best years, it could not have paid the debt back.

Not long after, cracks began to show in Swift Energy’s plan. The first problems, Swift thought, seemed manageable. Swift Energy was drilling in five places across Texas and Louisiana — each a different kind of dirt — and was taking a little longer than competitors to figure out the best drilling methods. Several times a year, Swift would pledge to pull a certain amount of oil and gas from the ground, then tell investors that the company had missed its targets. Often, its share prices would tumble. “They were horribly inefficient,” said David Deckelbaum, an analyst at KeyBanc.

Then Swift Energy began to feel the pain of unexpected global developments. Natural gas prices started to dip. Then the price of oil fell off a cliff in November 2014 when Saudi Arabia, in a bid to retain market share amid greater U.S. competition, increased its own production. Meantime, global demand sagged, again led by China.

Swift realized a manageable problem was no longer manageable. The company needed cash just to make interest payments, and nobody would lend it more money.

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Swift tried to perform triage. He laid off some employees. He called vendors and asked for lower prices. He chiseled at expenditures.

The company’s lender, JPMorgan, began tightening the funds Swift Energy could withdraw. The company’s stock — above $40 per share in 2011 — dipped below $1, and then below 25 cents.

Swift, along with chief financial officer Alton Heckaman, spent days at the computer running scenarios.

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Running out of cash, Swift realized his company was bound for bankruptcy. “I knew it was the best path,” he said. “Doesn’t mean it was a great path.”

On Dec. 1, Swift skipped an interest payment to its bondholders.

On Dec. 18, the company’s shares were yanked from the New York Stock Exchange because of their “abnormally low” prices.

And on the night of Dec. 31, Swift and Heckaman gathered at their Houston office, signing the last bankruptcy papers.

“The debtor requests relief in accordance with the chapter of title 11,” one of the documents said, and in this case restructuring meant that everybody who’d once owned stock in Swift Energy would lose virtually everything.

It was not alone. In 2015, 42 oil and gas companies failed, according to Haynes and Boone, a Dallas-based law firm, and this year that number is projected to accelerate.

“It was a disaster for everybody,” said J. Ellwood Towle, a St. Louis-based investor who was among Swift Energy’s biggest shareholders.

‘It wasn’t sustainable’

Here in Tilden, 80 miles south of San Antonio and 100 miles north of the Mexican border, Swift Energy had rented out its own “man camp” — a compound of prefab trailers — to house workers recruited from as far away as Ohio. For the three-person trailers, the company paid $3,000 per month. The 13-trailer compound felt at the time like the only option, Swift said. Without a man camp, you could spend $5,000 per month just to house an employee.

In the Eagle Ford basin, the number of drilling rigs doubled between 2011 and 2012, topping 250. Prices for land spiked a hundredfold. Swift had put up with the prices because the potential rewards were so great, but now he was directly facing the consequences of those decisions.

Swift walked into the field office to meet with Robbie Walters, the supervisor who managed all the production in South Texas. Walters sat in a wood-paneled office covered in geological maps.

“Down here just for the day?” Walters asked, and he never mentioned the bankruptcy.

“Just for the day,” Swift said.

Walters talked, instead, about the broader landscape. About the empty hotels. The businesses that had disappeared. The Tex-Mex restaurant, Pepe Boudreaux’s, that had shuttered only weeks earlier.

“You look back and you see it wasn’t sustainable,” Walters said.

Now, only 43 rigs were operating in the Eagle Ford.

“It was very competitive,” Swift said. “If you ever blinked and said, I’m not sure about sustainability, you’d get put in the bleachers. The longer you waited, the more you missed out.”

Swift returned to the Tahoe and checked out some other spots in the Eagle Ford: a new gas well that was being tested and the company’s man camp, where they are trying to renegotiate a better rate.

While touring the field, Swift stayed mostly quiet, instead listening to his employees detail how well the work to develop oil and gas wells was going. But on the drive home, he had something to say. It wasn’t so much an explanation for his company’s demise, but rather an explanation for his actions.

Comparing the joy of pulling oil from the ground with a “baby being born,” he said, “Mother earth has treasures, and there are prizes if you can extract them.” He added: “I don’t ask myself when I wake up, how much money do I have? I’m still an oil guy.”

But even if he remains an oil guy, his father’s company will no longer be controlled by one.

When Swift emerges later this year from a lengthy federal court process in Wilmington, Del., Swift will still be CEO. But the company will be owned by bondholders, including the hedge funds that swooped in last year — when it was obvious Swift Energy was in trouble — and bought, for dimes on the dollar, the bonds that were certain to default.

Swift doesn’t even know whether the company will retain its name.

“If I was in total control, I’d answer that,” Swift said. “I’m not in total control.”