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Regulators Seek Records on Claims for Gas Wells


A version of this article appeared in print on July 30, 2011, on page A13 of the New York edition.

WASHINGTON — The Securities and Exchange Commission sent subpoenas this week to energy companies asking them for documents about how they calculate and publicly disclose the performance of their shale gas wells, according to oil and gas industry lawyers.

The subpoenas reflect the regulators’ interest in determining whether companies are overstating how their gas wells perform and how much gas these companies can profitably extract over the long term.

It is not clear how many subpoenas were sent. John Nester, a spokesman for the commission, declined to comment.

“The use of subpoenas makes clear that the S.E.C. is taking a formal, not a casual, look at the matter,” said a market research report on Thursday by Robert W. Baird & Co., an international financial services firm. The report also noted that subpoenas do not mean that the commission intends to take action against any particular company, and that estimating reserves is not an exact science.

In a separate note, Gerard G. Pecht, a lawyer with Fulbright & Jaworski, told clients that the subpoenas were focused on the actual performance of shale gas wells compared with how companies were projecting their performance, according to an article on, an energy news Web site. Mr. Pecht did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The subpoenas also request documents related to discrepancies between what companies are telling investors about the costs of shale gas versus what they are reporting in federal filings.

Large natural gas companies, including Chesapeake Energy, EOG Resources and the Petrohawk Energy Corporation, did not return calls seeking comment. Alan T. Jeffers, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, the largest natural gas producer in the country, said the company had not received a subpoena.

One oil and gas industry consultant said that he was called to a meeting in mid-June with investigators from the Fort Worth office of the S.E.C. The investigators, he said, wanted to discuss a range of shale gas companies, and discrepancies between data reported to federal officials and what these companies had told investors about profit and well performance. The consultant asked not to be identified, to avoid alienating the energy companies that are his clients.

According to several oil and gas industry lawyers, the subpoenas are in response to articles published in June in The New York Times, which showed that a range of industry and federal officials had questioned whether shale gas companies might be playing down costs or inflating their predictions about well performance.

Some federal agencies have also begun discussing concerns about the long-term productivity of shale gas wells.

For example, the 2011 summer newsletter of the National Energy Technology Laboratory, a research arm of the Department of Energy, says that technology needs to improve in the Barnett shale in Texas, and in other shale gas areas, for these shale gas wells to be more economically viable.

Shale gas wells often decline sharply after their first year, but many in the industry had remained optimistic about the wells’ ability to produce at a slow but steady rate for decades. Others have doubted these assumptions, which may not be holding up.

“A crucial challenge for the industry today,” the newsletter said, is that only a “fraction” — a third or less — of wells show “sustained long-term production,” which makes it difficult for companies to make money on this drilling.

The newsletter added that many of the wells produce poorly and others drop in production sharply after an early period of heavy production.


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