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Chesapeake Energy’s Troubles Could Have Big Impact On North Texas

By Kent Chapline, CBSDFW.COM
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FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) - It’s one of the biggest natural gas drillers in the Barnett Shale, it owns the former Pier 1 building downtown, and it’s taking a lot of heat recently for some of its financial dealings.

Chesapeake Energy has a big presence in North Texas.  And lately it’s surrounded by a lot of controversy to match.

Chesapeake — and the rest of the natural gas industry — is already hurting because of rock-bottom prices for natural gas.  The Oklahoma City-based company is the second-biggest natural gas producer in the country (Irving’s ExxonMobil is first) and in the Barnett Shale.  The company is no stranger to the spotlight, which it actively chases through its high-profile advertising and public relations campaigns.  But its CEO’s financial dealings, and the company’s involvement in them, are bringing a lot of unwanted attention.

Reuters reports Chesapeake’s co-founder and CEO, Aubrey McClendon, has taken out some big personal loans against the company’s holdings.  Big, as in more than $1 billion.

He got the loans, in part, through something called the “Founder Well Participation Program,” which the company ended soon after it was publicly revealed.  It also took away the Chairman of the Board job from McClendon.  Not long after that, the Fort Worth office of the Securities and Exchange Commission started investigating Chesapeake.

One of the basic problems with the loan arrangement is the high potential for conflict of interest.  In April, Reuters talked to several lawyers and academics about the issue:

“If Mr. McClendon has $1 billion in debt through his own companies — companies operating in the same industry as Chesapeake — he has or could have a high degree of risk for conflicts of interest. As in, whose interest will he look out for, his own or Chesapeake’s?” said Joshua Fershee, an associate professor of energy and corporate law at the University of North Dakota.

Even before the loan arrangements came to light, Chesapeake decided to sharply cut back its drilling in the Barnett Shale.  The company announced in January that because of low natural gas prices it would eliminate half its Barnett drilling, dropping the total to six operating rigs.

2012 has been a rough year for the company so far, and it’s reflected in the stock price.  Today it’s trading at about $16.  That’s down from $25.58 in March, and way off its all-time high of more than $66, which it reached in 2008.

What could all this mean for North Texas?  Last month NPR talked to Houston geological consultant Arthur Berman and asked him that question:

“So I think it’s too early to say what the short-term or the long-term effects are, but it’s worth noting that Chesapeake is a huge, huge player in all of the onshore drilling that’s going on, not only in Texas but in the United States. In some ways, I guess it would be reasonable to say that if Chesapeake goes, so goes the overall business picture.”

In other words, stay tuned.  It could be a bumpy ride.

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