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These energy companies are running low on cash

A pump jack at an oil well in Williston, N.D.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A pump jack at an oil well in Williston, N.D.

The deep slide in global oil prices may start claiming the scalps of a number of oil companies.

One in 5 energy companies could be out of cash in less than six months, while 1 in 3 will hit that threshold in less than a year, according to a Big Crunch analysis.

Publicly traded energy companies as a whole may have $284 billion in cash and short-term assets on their books, but more than 80 percent of that money belongs to the 25 largest companies. Those entities also tend to still have positive cash flows — even the few that are negative have enough cash to last at least two years, according to Big Crunch calculations.

Yet the smallest energy companies — the ones whose names are not as well-known as ExxonMobil, BP or Chevron — are not as lucky. Dozens of small energy companies had already filed for bankruptcy by December, owing a collective $13 billion, according to law firm Haynes and Boone. Many more could join them in the next year, and some may be scooped up by opportunistic buyers. Expects say that as many as a third of American oil and gas companies and half of U.S. shale drillers could disappear into insolvency before oil prices recover.

Looking at the smaller half of companies traded on the NYSE and Nasdaq, more than half of those companies are burning cash fast enough to be out within six months (based on their cash flow in the last two reported quarters).

Here's what the overall market looks like, with every energy stock with reported data — blue companies have positive cash flow and the dark red shade means less than a year of cash at that company's burn rate.

As of the last complete quarter, the largest publicly traded energy companies on the two exchanges — companies like Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell, and the large Chinese and Brazilian companies — often still have positive cash flows.

Even the larger companies with negative cash flows in recent quarters like Chevron, ConocoPhillips and the Italian multinational oil and gas company Eni often have large cash stockpiles. At their current loss rates, that money could last anywhere from a few years to several decades.

To be sure, those large integrated companies are widely expected to report slashed revenue and profit figures in the upcoming round of earnings. Chevron posted a loss of 31 cents a share on Friday — its first quarterly loss in more than 13 years — and announced sharp capital spending reductions. At least for the moment, the big companies also have ruled out dividend cuts in the face of oil prices that are hovering near 12-year lows.

Large integrated companies may be able to afford that promise, because they've been able to rely so far on income from their refining operations, which are in a stronger position during periods of oil weakness. Out of 28 oil refiners and distributors in CNBC's analysis, only one was at risk of running short on cash in the next six months. Smaller companies, however, may not be as fortunate.

Here are the same data as in the graphic above, but excluding the 30 largest companies traded on American exchanges.

Excluding the largest companies makes it clear that the smallest energy companies are the most at risk. Some companies have already begun to take action in the face of dwindling cash reserves. With such low or nonexistent margins, companies can continue running through financing or reduce expenditures until oil recovers.

Continental Resources, North Dakota's second-largest oil producer, announced this week that it would cut its 2016 budget by 66 percent in an effort to preserve cash. To be profitable once more, the company said that oil would have to be at $37 a barrel, at least a few dollars higher than current levels.

Adding to the gloom, Hess and Noble Energy also have announced budget cuts, while earlier this month, Moody's said that 120 energy firms would be reviewed for a downgrade.

"Lower oil prices will further weaken cash flows for E&P companies and the upstream portion of integrated oil and gas companies. This will cause further deterioration in financial ratios, including deeper negative free cash flow. Most companies are unable to internally fund sustaining levels of capital spending at current market prices," said Moody's.

Of the 25 publicly traded American companies on that list, all but two were in the smaller half of companies. Those include companies like Approach Resources, Matador Resources, Parsley Energy, Jones Energy and Rice Energy. These companies all have less than a year's worth of cash based on our calculations from the most recent filings. A downgrade would just make it that much harder for companies to raise cash going forward.