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Oil pump jacks work in the Permian Basin in Loco Hills, New Mexico, on Aug. 14, 2020.

Joel Angel Juarez/The New York Times News Service

The U.S Securities and Exchange Commission has launched an investigation into Exxon Mobil Corp. after a whistle-blower complaint that the oil major overvalued a key asset in Texas’ Permian Basin, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

Exxon chief executive Darren Woods has pinned much of the company’s growth prospects on the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico, and two years ago pitted the company against rival Chevron Corp in a race to reach one million barrels of oil and gas a day in the field. The Exxon target grabbed the spotlight on the day Chevron was meeting with investors and analysts to make its own Permian case.

Mr. Woods told investors that Exxon could earn a double-digit returns in the Permian, even at US$35-per-barrel oil.

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Exxon shares were down 4 per cent at US$48.29 in midday trading.

Several people involved in valuing the Exxon Permian asset during an internal assessment in 2019 said employees were being forced to use unrealistic assumptions about how quickly the company could drill wells there to arrive at a higher value, the report said.

“Actual and provable performance exceeded drilling plans for the Permian, and such performance has been accurately represented to the investment community,” Exxon spokesman Casey Norton told Reuters on Friday in an e-mail. “Historically, the company’s unconventional drilling performance has increased in short timeframes as engineers and planners gather more data in basins across its portfolio.”

The SEC did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment.

“It does not surprise me that there may have been some pressure to inflate assumptions in the Permian,” said Biraj Borkhataria, analyst with RBC Capital Markets. “Over the last few years there was clearly an incentive for many companies to make that play look as attractive as possible.”

Some Exxon managers in 2018 had initially pegged the net present value of the Delaware Basin in Permian at about US$60-billion, the Journal reported in September. But a few employees involved in Exxon’s annual development planning estimated the value was closer to US$40-billion in 2019.

When employees delivered the new number, they were asked to “claw back” some of the lost value by using different assumptions, including a more optimistic “learning curve” that estimated the rate at which they would improve drilling times, the WSJ report said, citing the whistle-blower complaint.

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Some employees objected to using the new learning curve, which they viewed as unrealistic, it said. The value was ultimately adjusted to about US$50-billion, the report added.

At least one employee who complained was fired last year, the WSJ said, citing a person familiar with the matter.

The largest U.S. oil producer posted losses in the first three quarters of 2020 on an ill-timed spending increase that collided with a downturn in fuel demand and prices. To cope, the company has cut employees and project spending.

Exxon slashed 2020 spending in the Permian to about US$3-billion from an original US$7.4-billion budget, and said it would cut the number of drilling rigs working there from 55 to 15 or fewer.

Last month, Exxon also signalled a writedown of up to US$20-billion, mostly related to its natural gas properties.

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