Here are my favorite exerpts from the RollingStone’s original article. Below is Cheseapeake’s weak rebuttal and below this is Economist, Deborah Rogers’ response to the rebuttal. But here is the author’s (Jeff Goodell) response to Chesapeake’s rebuttal.
by: Jeff GoodellMcClendon leaves out is the real nature of the business he’s in. Fracking, it turns out, is about producing cheap energy the same way the mortgage crisis was about helping realize the dreams of middle-class homeowners. For Chesapeake, the primary profit in fracking comes not from selling the gas itself, but from buying and flipping the land that contains the gas. The company is now the largest leaseholder in the United States, owning the drilling rights to some 15 million acres – an area more than twice the size of Maryland. McClendon has financed this land grab with junk bonds and complex partnerships and future production deals, creating a highly leveraged, deeply indebted company that has more in common with Enron than ExxonMobil. As McClendon put it in a conference call with Wall Street analysts a few years ago, “I can assure you that buying leases for x and selling them for 5x or 10x is a lot more profitable than trying to produce gas at $5 or $6 per million cubic feet.”According to Arthur Berman, a respected energy consultant in Texas who has spent years studying the industry, Chesapeake and its lesser competitors resemble a Ponzi scheme, overhyping the promise of shale gas in an effort to recoup their huge investments in leases and drilling. When the wells don’t pay off, the firms wind up scrambling to mask their financial troubles with convoluted off-book accounting methods. “This is an industry that is caught in the grip of magical thinking,” Berman says. “In fact, when you look at the level of debt some of these companies are carrying, and the questionable value of their gas reserves, there is a lot in common with the subprime mortgage market just before it melted down.” LiIn January, the Energy Department cut its estimate of the amount of gas available in the Marcellus Shale by nearly 70 percent, and a group affiliated with the Colorado School of Mines warns that there may be only 23 years’ worth of economically recoverable gas left nationwide. Even worse, new studies suggest that because of fugitive emissions of methane from wellheads and pipelines, natural gas may actually be no better than coal when it comes to global warming. Chesapeake was the first gas-exploration company to issue high-yield junk bonds, which gave it a steady cash flow to pay for leasing and drilling.
At Chesapeake, McClendon operated more like a land speculator than an oilman. “Our approach is to go in early, quietly and big,” says Henry Hood, who directs Chesapeake’s land purchases. “We like to get our deals signed before anybody knows what we’re up to and tries to run up prices.” But buying up such huge swaths of land requires huge chunks of cash – and the money often comes not from gas production, but from selling off land or going into debt. After Chesapeake drills a few wells in a region and “proves up” the reserves, it hawks the leases to big oil and gas companies looking to get into the shale-gas game. In 2010, it pocketed $2.2 billion by selling land it bought in Texas for $2,000 an acre to one of China’s largest oil companies for $11,000 an acre. “That’s a five-to-one return on investment,” says Jeff Mobley, Chesapeake’s senior vice president for investor relations.
In recent years, the company has also sold off the future proceeds it expects to receive from thousands of wells – a complex financing deal that enables it to borrow cash now without counting the debt it will owe when it has to drill the wells later. The very first deal, made with Deutsche Bank and a Swiss investment firm, brought Chesapeake more than $1 billion in return for 15 years of future production from 4,000 wells. “It’s not illegal, but most gas and oil companies don’t do it,” says Bob Brackett, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. “Chesapeake’s poor credit rating pushes them to turn to unconventional financing.”
“Then they have to drill it or lose it, which further adds to capital costs. And the more they drill, the more gas they produce, which lowers the price of gas and further reduces their revenues. In the end, this drilling treadmill is difficult to sustain for long – especially if the wells underperform, or the resource turns out to not be as valuable as they thought.”
This sort of gambling suits McClendon, who is known for placing big bets – and sometimes losing big. During the financial meltdown in 2008, McClendon was forced to sell off 94 percent of his stock in Chesapeake – some 33 million shares – for $550 million to meet a margin call on his personal investments. (Only a few months earlier, the stock had been worth $2 billion.) In February, Chesapeake announced that, because of low gas prices, its revenues will fall $3.5 billion short of its expenses this year.
Well failures, in fact, are fairly common at drilling sites. I ask Anthony Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell University and a former consultant for oil-service firms, to look at the 141 violations levied against Chesapeake in Pennsylvania last year. According to Ingraffea, 24 of them involved failures of well integrity. “When a well loses integrity, it means the seal is broken and something – usually methane, but it could also be flowback water – is leaking out underground,” he says. “And it’s impossible to know where it is going, or in what amounts.”
“We don’t have a great handle on the toxicology of fracking chemicals.”
Whatever it is, there’s a lot of it: Random data I sampled from five wells that Chesapeake drilled in Pennsylvania and Ohio last year reveals that the company injected between 24,000 pounds and 230,000 pounds of chemicals into each well. “systematic evidence for methane contamination” in household drinking water: Water wells half a mile from drilling operations were contaminated by methane at 17 times the rate of those farther from gas developments. denies any responsibility for the elevated methane levels. Tom Darrah, a Duke geologist who has examined Vargson’s well for a new study, finds that difficult to square with the facts. “Anyone who has seen the data I have and thinks this much methane in her well is from natural sources has their head in the sand,” he says.
For Vargson, and many homeowners just like her, fracking has proved to be a full-blown disaster. Since she signed up with Chesapeake, her back pasture has become a full-time industrial zone, her water supply has been contaminated, and it will be virtually impossible to sell her home, since it lacks drinkable water. What’s more, her well turned out to be a dud: The landman from Chesapeake who sold her on the deal failed to mention that 80 percent of a well’s gas is often depleted within the first two years. In all likelihood, Vargson’s well will end up being a money-loser for Chesapeake, either sold off to another company or refracked in an attempt to dislodge more gas. Either way, the royalty checks that Vargson and her husband were counting on for retirement will hardly pay for dinner and a movie. “We made about $1,400 the first month, and it’s been all downhill from there,” she says. Her check for last November: $70.
McClendon “a pathological liar.”
But McClendon’s worst enemy may not be environmentalists or coal companies, but his own recklessness. He played a leading role in creating the fracking bubble by hyping the promise of endless natural gas and sweet-talking Wall Street into funding a massive land grab. If the bubble bursts, Chesapeake’s stockholders won’t be the only ones who pay the price – the shock waves will be felt throughout the economy, from homeowners who rely on natural gas for heat to manufacturers who were betting on it to power their new factories. Thanks to McClendon’s gambles, Chesapeake is struggling to cover $10 billion in long-term debt. In recent weeks, the company has announced it will sell off more land and shut down some production.
Turning vast stretches of Pennsylvania into a pincushion in order to ship gas to China doesn’t exactly mesh with McClendon’s emphasis on making America energy independent. But unless something changes, that’s precisely where things are headed – on a grand scale. Well casings will fail. Fracking chemicals will be spilled. Drinking water will be contaminated. Methane will seep into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. When you add it all up, you can see why many environmentalists and clean-energy activists no longer see natural gas as a bridge to a more sustainable future. “It’s time to stop thinking of natural gas as a ‘kinder, gentler’ energy source,” Mike Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, recently blogged. “Instead of rushing to see how quickly we can extract natural gas, we should be focusing on how to be sure we are using less.”Here is Chesapeakes (weak) response.Here is Economist, Deborah Roger’s fact based response.