Aubrey McClendon's penchant for "land grab" as a business model made the recently-ousted Chesapeake Energy CEO infamous - and he's at it again for his new start-up hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") company in Ohio's Utica Shale basin. It's a formation he once hailed as the "biggest thing to hit Ohio since the plow."
Under Securities and Exchange Commission investigation for sketchy business practices, McClendon departed Chesapeake with a severance package including $35 million, access to the company's private jets through 2016 and a 2.5% * ownership stake in* every well Chesapeake fracks through June 2014.
American Energy Partners' headquarters are just half a mile down the road from Chesapeake's, the number two U.S. producer of shale gas behind ExxonMobil. Some of those in McClendon's Chesapeake inner circle have left Chesapeake and joined him (or reportedly intend to join him) at his new ventures.**
Though former Chesapeake employees are barred from working for McClendon, this excludes "any employee assigned to Mr. McClendon as an assistant," "any employee who has been terminated by the Company," "any employee who elects (or has elected) to accept any voluntary severance or retirement program offered by the Company," or "any employee for whom the Company consents in advance to the soliciting and hiring by Mr. McClendon."
In other words, the scandal-ridden AKM Operations has shape-shifted into McClendon Energy Partners, American Energy Partners and Arcadia Capital LLC.
McClendon's playing the same business plan game using a different company name, with Ohio serving as the first pit stop. Although his business plans were held close to the chest since his Chesapeake departure, recent stories indicate that McClendon's Ohio "land grab" has now begun in earnest.
"Deja Vu All Over Again" for McClendon
When McClendon left Chesapeake, he didn't fly off solo, by any means.
Those who also left Chesapeake*** include former head of corporate development and top lobbyist Tom Price, private equity consultant Scott Mueller****, and Henry Hood, Chesapeake's former senior vice president of land.
Four other members of Chesapeake's upper-level management are also "leaving as part of a reorganization of the U.S. oil and gas company's leadership," according to an August 12 memo written by current CEO Doug Lawler and first reported by Reuters. Further, Chesapeake mysteriously fired 28 Ohio-based community outreach employees two days later on August 14, according to Crain's.
Two days later, Upstream dropped the bombshell: "Aubrey McClendon back on call" - McClendon's American Energy Partners had raised $1 billion in capital and purchased over 72,000 acres in five Ohio counties.
With "land grab" as a central tenet of McClendon's Chesapeake business model, and Ohio's Utica shale basin the prize McClendon was most excited about prior to his Chesapeake departure, it appears it'll be a case of what Yogi Berra called "deja vu all over again" for McClendon and the victims of the "land grab."'
"Land Grab" Well Underway
Demonstrating the seriousness of McClendon's new ventures, Upstream explained that American Energy Partners "is already deploying his signature army of landmen leasing under the names of shell companies to hide their tracks."
"Offset and legacy operators, landowners, leasing agents and industry sources painted a picture of McClendon lodging high bids for major parcels to put together a strong position in counties such as Guernsey, Belmont, Harrison and Noble," Upstream wrote.
American Energy Partners has also teamed up with the Fort Worth leasing firm Orange Energy Consultants - creating a new limited liability corporation named Great River Energy - to buy extensive Utica acreage, Upstream revealed.
"Orange representatives involved in Great River would only say the company was backed by deep-pocketed investors that requested confidentiality," according to Upstream.
Sharing some of the same management of the law firm Beckmen, Cherkassky, Dean & Associates and launched in October 2010, Orange has a lease acquisition program and is "experienced at coordinating and facilitating large, multiple leasing signing meetings with hundreds of mineral and property owners present," according to its website.
Orange has a field office in Canton, Ohio, the state in which American Energy Partners will focus all of its time and energy, so the Orange office will likely be busy over the coming weeks and months.
Landmen.net - the central job board for landmen seeking industry employment - has already posted two blurbs recruiting prospective landmen to work in eastern Ohio, where American Energy Partners has purchased tens of thousands of acres.
"Pipeline Directly From Your Wallet into His"
Forbes energy writer Christopher Helman excitedly offered context about the high stakes nature of these developments, portending a potentially immense "land grab" to come for McClendon.
"Aubrey McClendon is back with a vengeance and prowling Ohio’s Utica shale...At Chesapeake, McClendon’s army of land men assembled a position of more than 1.2 million acres in the Utica," he wrote.
In his groundbreaking McClendon story, Rolling Stone's Jeff Goodell summed it up well.
"Like generations of energy kingpins before him, it would seem, McClendon's primary goal is not to solve America's energy problems, but to build a pipeline directly from your wallet into his."
Update: This post has been corrected in the following ways:
*Correction to reflect the fact that Mr. McClendon has an ownership stake in every well, rather than a ‘return on’ every well Chesapeake develops through June 2014.
** Correction to remove reference to a 'potentially illegal internal hedge fund named AKM Operations'. Mr. McClendon's lawyers state in a letter to DeSmogBlog that "employees at Chesapeake did not help run any internal hedge fund." Reuters has covered the issue in some depth, noting that a hedge fund called Heritage Management Company, which shared its mailing address with Chesapeake headquarters, was started by McClendon and Chesapeake's co-founder Tom Ward.
*** Clarification to note that these individuals have left Chesapeake Energy since McClendon's departure.
****Clarification to remove a parenthetical note about Mr. Mueller's prior role with a hedge fund at Sandridge Energy.
*****Correction: In an earlier version, this blog incorrectly identified the relationship of Beckmen, Cherkassky, Dean & Associates and Orange Energy Consultants. Orange Energy Consultants is not owned by the law firm; both parties, however, share management.
Image Credit: Energy Action Coalition