By Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, March 13, 2014
At the end of 2011, Chesapeake Energy, one of the nation’s biggest oil and gas companies, was teetering on the brink of failure.
Its legendary chief executive officer, Aubrey McClendon, was being pilloried for questionable deals, its stock price was getting hammered and the company needed to raise billions of dollars quickly.
The money could be borrowed, but only on onerous terms. Chesapeake, which had burned money on a lavish steel-and-glass office complex in Oklahoma City even while the selling price for its gas plummeted, already had too much debt.
In the months that followed, Chesapeake executed an adroit escape, raising nearly $5 billion with a previously undisclosed twist: By gouging many rural landowners out of royalty payments they were supposed to receive in exchange for allowing the company to drill for natural gas on their property.
In lawsuits in state after state, private landowners have won cases accusing the companies like Chesapeake of stiffing them on royalties they were due. Federal investigators have repeatedly identified underpayments of royalties for drilling on federal lands, including a case in which Chesapeake was fined $765,000 for “knowing or willful submission of inaccurate information” last year.
Last month, Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett, who is seeking reelection, sent a letter to Chesapeake’s CEO saying the company’s expense billing “defies logic” and called for the state Attorney General to open an investigation.
McClendon, a swashbuckling executive and fracking pioneer, was ultimately pushed out of his job. But the impact of the Financial Maneuvers that he made to save the company will reverberate for years. The winners, aside from Chesapeake, were a competing oil company and a New York private equity firm that fronted much of the money in exchange for promises of double-digit returns for the next two decades.
The losers were landowners in Pennsylvania and elsewhere who leased their land to Chesapeake and saw their hopes of cashing in on the gas-drilling boom vanish without explanation.
People like Joe Drake.
“I got the check out of the mail… I saw what the gross was,” said Drake, a third-generation Pennsylvania farmer whose monthly royalty payments for the same amount of gas plummeted from $5,300 in July 2012 to $541 last February. This sort of precipitous drop can reflect gyrations in the price of gas. But in this case, Drake’s shrinking check resulted from a corporate decision by Chesapeake to radically reinterpret the terms of the deal it had struck to drill on his land. “If you or I did that we’d be in jail,” Drake said.
Chesapeake’s conduct is part of a larger national pattern in which many giant energy companies have maneuvered to pay as little as possible to the owners of the land they drill. Last year, a ProPublica investigation found that Pennsylvania landowners were paying ever-higher fees to companies for transporting their gas to market, and that Chesapeake was charging more than other companies in the region. The question was “why”?
ProPublica pieced together the story of how Chesapeake shifted borrowing costs to landowners from documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, interviews with landowners, people who worked for the company and employees at other oil and gas concerns.
The deals took advantage of a simple economic principle: Monopoly power.