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?
Many people shop online for everything from clothes to appliances. If they do not like the product, they simply return it. But there's an environmental cost to returns.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
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By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.
We Need More Than Listening<p>By now we have all become sadly accustomed to the current administration sidelining scientists, most prominently Dr. Anthony Fauci, because the facts they provide do not fit with the political rhetoric of the moment.</p><p>I have <a href="https://www.csldf.org/2019/08/22/csldf-helps-climate-scientist-maria-caffrey-fight-for-scientific-integrity/" target="_blank">my own history</a> of filing a scientific integrity complaint with the National Park Service (which falls under the Department of the Interior) after senior ranking employees attempted to censor one of my scientific reports. I know all too well the damage and pain that these actions cause, not just for the individual scientist, but also because these <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">attacks on science</a> over the last few years have undermined sound, evidence-based decision making.</p><p>President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that he will <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/521638-trump-biden-will-listen-to-the-scientists-if-elected" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">listen to the scientists</a>. While this is certainly a welcome change, listening can only take us so far. This past week Lauren Kurtz from the <a href="https://www.csldf.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Climate Science Legal Defense Fund</a> and my colleague <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/about/people/gretchen-goldman" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gretchen Goldman</a> published <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ten-steps-that-can-restore-scientific-integrity-in-government/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an article</a> listing 10 actions the new administration should implement to show their commitment to strengthening government science:</p><ol><li>Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship.</li><li>Protect scientists' communication rights.</li><li>Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations.</li><li>Protect federal scientists' right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.</li><li>Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions.</li><li>Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law.</li><li>Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency.</li><li>Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/strengthening-science-and-si-at-ostp.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Office of Science and Technology Policy</a>, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.</li><li>Strengthen whistleblower protections.</li><li>Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science.</li></ol>
Time for Action<p>I have spoken to many scientists, particularly federal scientists, who are eager to turn the page so they can hurry back to the work they had been doing before this administration, but I urge caution in assuming that things can be "normal" again.</p><p>Before Trump, I naively thought the scientific integrity policies established during the <a href="https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/19/scientific-integrity-policies-update" target="_blank">Obama administration</a> would be sufficient. I never imagined that any administration could so willfully ignore and attack expert advice and evidence that is intended to protect us and our public lands.</p><p>I have personally witnessed how hard our federal scientists work. They put in long hours with minimal pay (far less that what they could get if they worked in private industry) to pursue one simple goal: to make things better for the nation.</p><p>We need stronger scientific integrity policies to protect these people and their work. But more than that, we need stronger scientific integrity laws because they also benefit society.</p>
By Andrea Germanos
Environmental campaigners stressed the need for the incoming Biden White House to put in place permanent protections for Alaska's Bristol Bay after the Trump administration on Wednesday denied a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine that threatened "lasting harm to this phenomenally productive ecosystem" and death to the area's Indigenous culture.
<div id="da98c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="478a197b7c59c92787c92bec92f1ac39"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1331662923710693376" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Bristol Bay forever, Pebble mine never. #NoPebbleMine #SaveBristolBay https://t.co/CBQ9zuy8A5</div> — Save Bristol Bay (@Save Bristol Bay)<a href="https://twitter.com/SaveBristolBay/statuses/1331662923710693376">1606328156.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Gwen Ranniger
In the midst of a pandemic, sales of cleaning products have skyrocketed, and many feel a need to clean more often. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cleaning supplies can help prevent unwanted and dangerous toxics from entering your home.