What happened

Shares of Whiting Petroleum (WLL) tumbled as much as 51% on Wednesday and were down 23% at 1:30 p.m. EST. Weighing on shares of the oil producer was market speculation that the company would hire advisors to review its capital composition. 

So what

Whiting Petroleum has held discussions with advisor groups to review its capital structure, according to Debtwire and Bloomberg. The company is looking at the potential of an "up-tiering exchange," which would replace unsecured debt with newly issued secured debt like second lien notes. Companies use these types of exchanges to reduce debt outstanding, extend maturities, or avoid bankruptcy, according to credit rating agency Fitch. 

The word debt written on a chalkboard with an eraser next to it.

Image source: Getty Images.

Whiting has taken several actions to strengthen its balance sheet in recent years. During the third quarter, for example, the company completed a cash tender offer to repurchase $300 million of its 2020 convertible notes using the borrowing capacity on its credit facility. It also repurchased $100 million of unsecured debt due in 2021 on the open market at an average discount of 4.7%. However, the company still had another $262 million of convertible debt due this year, as well as $774 million of remaining unsecured notes due next year to address. It has been considering noncore asset sales to provide it with the cash to pay off this debt, but it's getting harder to complete deals do to all the volatility in the oil market. 

Now what

Whiting has been taking incremental steps to bolster its balance sheet. However, it's running low on time, given its upcoming maturities. That's leading it to look at alternative options so that it can stay afloat in what remains a very challenging market for energy companies. While a solution such as up-tiering might buy it more time, the company will remain in a weak state until it can get its balance sheet back on solid ground by permanently eliminating more debt.