November 21, 2014

IE Questions: Private Versus Public Oil And Gas

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Jordan Wirfs-Brock/Inside Energy

Our IE Question this week may seem obtuse:  How much oil and gas is produced by public companies and how much is produced by private companies?

But we have very good reasons for going down this rabbit hole.

Ever wonder about oil and gas' private side? We do...

Jordan Wirfs-Brock / Inside Energy

Ever wonder about oil and gas’ private side? We do…

As $75 a barrel oil prices shift from news to the new normal, we’ve been hearing a lot of questions about what this means for everything from your personal finances to the global economy.

In the midst of this, it’s important to understand the fundamental difference between public and private companies:

  • Publicly-traded companies – that is, a company you could go buy stock in right now – are required to make their finances transparent so investors can see how they are performing.
  • Privately-owned companies have no such requirement, so we can’t readily know if they are flourishing or floundering, how much debt they have, how over-extended they may be.

We can see in real time how oil prices affect public companies like Anadarko or Royal Dutch Shell through their stock prices. But private companies are a black box. The oil and gas industry is a major player in the U.S. economy, so how much of that industry is in that black box?

For now, we are going to focus on Colorado, Inside Energy’s home base, which ranks sixth and seventh in the country in natural gas and oil production, respectively. In 2014, 313 operators produced oil or gas here, based on data from the state oil and gas commission. Of those,

  • 79 percent, are privately owned
  • 19 percent are publicly traded
  • the public/private status of a few companies is unclear because they could be subsidiaries of publicly traded companies. (Help us by looking at our oil and gas operator list and letting us know if you have additional information.)

The vast majority of oil and gas operators in Colorado are privately owned. But when we look at production, the private/public ratio flips: One-fifth of the companies are making more than four-fifths of the oil and gas.

Get the data: CSV | XLS | Google Sheets | Source and notes: Github

Let’s start with natural gas. Year to date, Colorado has produced 1.2 billion Mcf of natural gas (one Mcf equals the volume of 1000 cubic feet of natural gas) – enough to cover roughly 17 days of U.S. natural gas use – which is split like this:

  • 170 million Mcf, or 14.6 percent, of the state’s natural gas production, came from privately owned companies,
  • 992 million Mcf, or 85.3 percent, came from publicly traded companies,
  • The ambiguous operators represented 0.12 percent.

And what about crude oil? So far this year, 46 million barrels of oil have been produced in Colorado. (For comparison, last year the state set a record with 64 million barrels – enough to cover roughly three days of U.S. oil consumption.) And here’s how that production breaks down:

  • 5.7 million barrels or, or 12.4 percent, of the state’s oil production, came from privately owned companies,
  • 40.6 million barrels or, or 87.6 percent, came from publicly traded companies,
  • The ambiguous operators represented 0.02 percent.
In Colorado, the private oil and gas sector is basically the opposite of the TARDIS: smaller on the inside than on the outside.

Jordan Wirfs-Brock / Inside Energy

In Colorado, the private oil and gas sector is basically the opposite of the TARDIS: smaller on the inside than on the outside.

There are a lot of privately owned oil and gas operators, but they aren’t producing a lot. So, in Colorado at least, the black box is big, but it doesn’t hold very much. For any Doctor Who fans out there, private oil and gas companies are basically the opposite of TARDIS.

This private versus public question, as any good question does, gives rise to others:

  • Is Colorado representative of U.S. oil and gas production, or do other oil and gas states like Texas and North Dakota look different?
  • Private doesn’t necessarily mean small. As you can see in the graphic, some private companies produce more natural gas that some public ones. Private company Samson Resources, for example, is a huge player, with roughly an eighth of proved natural gas resources in the U.S. as global giant Exxon Mobil. So, how many of these privately-owned companies are truly small, tenuous operations?
  • Is oil and gas different from other industries – say, are fourth-fifths of hamburgers sold in the U.S. made by one-fifth of the restaurants? Or are four-fifths of movies made by one-fifth of movie studios?

As Inside Energy continues to investigate the money behind oil and gas, we’ll look at these questions as well as others. Is there something you’d like us to explore? Send us your questions on Twitter @insideenergynow or email us at