What Chesapeake Energy's Financial Scandals Mean for the Rest of Us
By Brendan DeMelle
Given radioactive wastewater, earthquakes and flammable tap water, one might think that drilling and fracking could not possibly have any more dirty secrets. But here’s the biggest secret of all: it’s expensive.
With natural gas at historic low prices—the Wall Street Journal ran a column recently suggesting that the price of gas might even sink to negative numbers, so that producers would need to pay buyers to take it off their hands—it may seem odd to think that fracking is costly. But it’s true. Not just in terms of its environmental footprint, but also in terms of its financial costs.
And everyone should care about how expensive gas is, especially those concerned about energy security and the environment, because the answer will determine the fate of renewables, the way we use land and water, and whether our nation’s energy policies are fundamentally sound.
To understand what’s going on, you need to look at Chesapeake Energy, the second largest producer of natural gas in the U.S., and the company described by its founder and CEO Aubrey McClendon as the “biggest frackers in the world.”
For 19 of the past 21 years, the company has operated at what investors call “cash flow negative”—last year by $8.547 billion dollars—meaning that Chesapeake has consistently spent a whole lot more than it earned. For decades.
To fund all that fracking, the company has been flipping land, engaging in so many financial transactions that it’s been said to resemble a hedge fund more than a gas driller.
McClendon's company has become the environmental Enron, with Chesapeake's accountants creating some of the most labyrinthine and impenetrable books since Enron, according to some investors.
The company has used all sorts of tactics to cover for its losses and to make fracking look economically plausible even as gas prices have plunged.
Last summer, The New York Times first raised questions about Chesapeake’s accounting practices and its admission that the company’s real strategy is to flip land—in other words: buy drilling plots cheap, talk up its gas potential and then sell the land at inflated prices.
This makes figuring out the true costs of the company’s drilling program very difficult. It also means that it’s impossible to weigh the benefits of fracked gas—it may be less carbon intensive than coal as a source of electricity—against the costs, which have been obscured.
An impressive Reuters investigation led a slew of journalists to delve deep into Chesapeake’s books, with each additional report bringing to light more of McClendon’s questionable financial practices as Chesapeake’s CEO.
Without telling investors, McClendon borrowed $1.1 billion dollars to fund his personal 2.5 percent stake in the company’s wells, sometimes from the same banks that lent Chesapeake money, Reuters revealed.
He also was running a $200 million personal hedge fund that trades in the same commodities that Chesapeake sells, and never told investors about that either. He borrowed money from a member of Chesapeake’s board of directors—a person who helps to decide how much McClendon is paid by the company—and again, that was not disclosed.
In short: McClendon used his position as CEO to further his own financial interests. This has the company’s investors furious, and rightly so.
McClendon was removed from Chesapeake's board of directors—but remains its CEO and is still running the show. Several shareholders have called for him and the entire board to be fired outright over McClendon's undisclosed personal transactions.
But the problems that should really be raising eyebrows are shown in the numbers that McClendon actually did disclose, according to Reuters. Those numbers reveal that McClendon’s 2.5 percent slice of Chesapeake’s drilling and fracking program have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in just a couple years.
“So right there, it’s just a barometer that tells you, how profitable are Chesapeake’s wells?” Arthur Berman, one of the industry’s strongest skeptics, said on National Public Radio. “They’re not profitable. That’s the takeaway. It’s real simple.”
Others have also raised red flags.
"If they are showing that kind of negative cash flow, the wells don't have value," Phil Weiss, a Wall Street energy analyst at Argus Research who was one of the first to ring alarm bells about Chesapeake’s “aggressive accounting,” told Reuters.
In part, what first sparked Weiss’s concern is one of Chesapeake’s unusual financial practices, called a Volumetric Production Payment. These are essentially contracts that let Chesapeake sell its future gas production today. Chesapeake can record income now, and deliver the gas later.
Weiss—and plenty of other market analysts—sees these as off-balance sheet debt, a way for Chesapeake to avoid tallying their actual indebtedness when they describe their finances to investors. The Wall Street Journal reported that Chesapeake has racked up at least $1.4 billion in off-balance sheet obligations from these deals. These sorts of accounting practices are similar to the ones that got Enron in trouble.
They may also mean real trouble for the people Chesapeake owes money to if the company goes bankrupt, because the real assets that Chesapeake has are its wells and its leased acreage. But if the gas from those wells has already been sold to someone else, creditors can’t seize them, according to the Energy Policy Forum, which also points out that the company may be over-producing gas from those wells in order to meet its production targets under these contracts.
So what does all this mean for the rest of us?
First of all, a lot of land, water and clean air—and a lot of money—wasted hunting for a dirty fossil fuel that has been oversold.
When wells are over-produced in the short run, the total amount of gas that can be tapped from the area falls in the long run. So the wells look highly productive today, but this comes only at the cost of future production.
Translation: far more drilling than predicted for far less returns.
The Feds are starting to take a look at some of these concerns. After last summer's reports, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) launched an investigation into whether Chesapeake and other companies have been over-stating the productivity of their wells or cooking their books.
The SEC is now also looking into McClendon’s potential financial conflicts of interest.
For all the oil and gas industry’s rhetoric about shale gas as the holy grail of energy solutions (backed up by the Obama administration and the Republican presidential candidates), no one really knows how fracked gas wells will perform over the coming decades.
Shale gas has only been in commercial production for about ten years. Many companies have told investors and others that they expect to still be drawing gas from these wells up to half a century from now, which helps to justify spending a lot of money today on drilling and fracking.
But independent analysts say that many wells cannot possibly produce gas for that long, and companies like Chesapeake have been making overly-optimistic assumptions. If the wells fall short, not only are companies in a lot of trouble, but so is anyone who is planning on heating their homes with cheap natural gas or relying on electricity from gas-fired power plants.
Why? Because if the wells underperform, prices are going to rocket upwards and consumers will pay for that.
Drillers have been telling Wall Street investors and Washington policymakers that increased demand will raise prices. In part, that means building plants to export liquified natural gas, turning a domestic commodity into one that can be traded on the world market at higher prices. Those plans have drawn a variety of legal challenges and raised environmental concerns that have stalled expansion. Raising demand mostly means building fracked gas-fired power plants instead of turning to wind or solar energy.
The price of natural gas is artificially depressed, distorting the economic picture right at the time that aging coal plants are being retired. But it cannot stay low forever, especially given the true costs of drilling and fracking that are beginning to come to light.
When the music stops and the price of natural gas spikes, will public utilities have invested in renewables—or will we all be dependent on shale gas that is not only environmentally damaging, but also far more expensive than it seemed?
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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A new report from Oxfam found that the wealthiest one percent of the world produced a carbon footprint that was more than double that of the bottom 50 percent of the world, The Guardian reported. The study examined 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions and wealth inequality from 1990 to 2015.
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