Showing posts with label Aubrey McClendon. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Aubrey McClendon. Show all posts

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Aubrey McClendon (1959 – 2016): A flawed titan?

On Saturday, March 5, a riverfront in USA’s Oklahoma City saw well wishers, former employees, friends and family of controversial energy sector entrepreneur Aubrey McClendon, gather to pay their respects, following his death in a car crash on March 2; a day after being indicted on bid-rigging charges following an antitrust investigation by the US Department of Justice.

In keeping with his swashbuckling life, the end, when it came, was just as dramatic. While a police investigation into the crash is still ongoing, reports said the Chevy Tahoe McClendon was driving slammed straight into a cement wall, despite the driver having had multiple opportunities to avoid the collision. It was also revealed that he was not wearing his seat-belt.  

That was the final act of a glittering, albeit controversial oil and gas industry titan. As the shale bonanza took off stateside, McClendon was one of the poster boys of rising US natural gas production, taking Chesapeake Energy – a company he co-founded in 1989 at the young age of 29 – to the second spot on the country’s top gas producers’ roster by volume.

But in 2013, he was ousted from Chesapeake following damaging revelations that he had personal stakes in wells owned by the company. An accompanying corporate governance crisis tarnished his reputation further.

Yet, McClendon’s penchant for lavish spending never subsided. His investments in property, restaurants and businesses are littered across Oklahoma City. Famously, in 2008, he brought the National Basketball Association's Supersonics franchise to Oklahoma City from Seattle, renaming them Oklahoma City Thunder.

Following the Chesapeake debacle, McClendon marked a return to the industry by setting up a new company – American Energy Partners. Being the wildest of wildcatters, he made bets, not all of them sound, worth billions of dollars buying land with potential for oil and gas drilling.

However, all was not well with the US Justice Department set to haul him to the courts. He was alleged to have put in place a scheme between two “large oil and gas companies” to not bid against each other for leases in northwest Oklahoma from December 2007 to March 2012, to keep the price of leasing drilling rights artificially low, the Department of Justice said a day before his sudden death.

The American antitrust law – Sherman Act – which McClendon was accused of violating carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and a $1 million fine. 

None of this mattered to the hundreds who gathered on Saturday at Oklahoma City's Boathouse District to pay their respects to McClendon, with a formal public memorial service due on Monday at a local community church.

For them, the state in general and the city in particular, McClendon was instrumental in reviving the regional economy. As for the US shale industry, his impact in the history books – the good, the bad, the ugly, the unproven and the controversial. However, in his untimely passing, it is McClendon’s ingenuity that ought to be remembered by most.

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© Gaurav Sharma 2016. Photo: A shale drilling site © Chesapeake Energy.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Brent’s ‘nine-month high’, Aubrey, BP & more

Oh boy, what one round of positive data, especially from China, does to the oil market! The Brent forward month futures contract for March is within touching distance of a US$120 per barrel price and the bulls are out in force. Last Friday’s intraday price of US$119.17 was a nine-month high; a Brent price level last seen in May 2012. The cause – and you have heard this combination before – was healthy economic data from China, coupled with Syrian turmoil and an Iranian nuclear stalemate.
 
The Oilholic has said so before, and will say it again – the last two factors touted by market commentators have been broadly neutral in terms of their impact for the last six months. It is the relatively good macroeconomic news from China which is principally behind the rally that nearly saw the Brent price breach the US$120 level.
 
The bull-chatter is already in full force. In a note to clients, Goldman Sachs advised them last week to maintain a net long position in the S&P GSCI Brent Crude Total Return Index. The investment bank believes this rally is "less driven by supply shocks and instead by improving demand."
 
"Global oil demand has surprised to the upside in recent months, consistent with the pick-up in economic activity," the bank adds in an investment note. Really? This soon – on one set of data? One thing is for sure, with many Asian markets shut for the Chinese New Year, at least trading volumes will be lighter this week.
 
Nonetheless, the ‘nine-month high’ also crept into the headline inflation debate in the UK where the CPI rate has been flat at 2.7% since October, but commentators reckon the oil spike may nudge it higher. Additionally, the Brent-WTI spread is seen widening yet again towards the US$25 per barrel mark. On a related note, Enterprise Product Partners said that capacity on its Seaway pipeline to the US Gulf of Mexico coast from Cushing, Oklahoma will remain limited until much later this year.
 
Moving away from pricing, news arrived end-January that the inimitable Aubrey McClendon will soon vacate the office of the CEO of Chesapeake Energy. It followed intense scrutiny over the last nine months about revelations, which surfaced in May, regarding his borrowings to finance personal stakes in company wells.
 
As McClendon announced his departure on January 29, the company’s board reiterated that it had found no evidence to date of improper conduct by the CEO. McClendon will continue in his post until a successor is found which should be before April 1st – the day he is set to retire. The announcement marks a sad and unspectacular exit for the great pioneer who co-founded and led Chesapeake Energy from its 1989 inception in Oklahoma City and has been a colourful character in the oil and gas business ever since.
 
Whatever the circumstances of his exit may be, let us not forget that before the so called ‘shale gale’ was blowing, it was McClendon and his ilk who first put their faith in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The rest, and US’ near self-sufficiency in gas supplies, is history.

Meanwhile, BP has been in the crude news for a number of reasons. First off, an additional US$34 billion in claims filed against BP by four US states earlier this month have provided yet another hurdle for the oil giant to overcome as it continues to address the aftermath of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
 
However, Fitch Ratings not believe that the new round of claims is a game changer. In fact the agency does not think that any final settlement is likely to be enough to interfere with BP's positive medium term credit trajectory. The latest claims come on top of the US$58 billion maximum liability calculated by Fitch. If realised, the cost of the spill could rise up to as much as US$92 billion.
 
The agency said the new claims should be put in the context of an asset sale programme that has raised US$38 billion. “This excludes an additional US$12 billion in cash to come from the sale of TNK-BP this year – upside in our analysis because we gave BP no benefit for the TNK-BP stake. BP had US$19 billion of cash on its balance sheet at 31 December 2012. That is after it has already paid US$38 billion in settlements or into escrow,” it added.
 
Away from the spill, the company announced that it had started production from new facilities at its Valhall field in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea on January 26 with an aim of producing up to 65,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day in the second half of 2013. Valhall's previous output averaged about 42,000 barrels per day (bpd), feeding crude into the Ekofisk oil stream.
 
Earlier this month, BP also said that both consortiums vying to link Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz gas field in the Caspian Sea, into Western European markets have an equal chance of success. BP operates the field which was developed in a consortium partnership with Statoil, Total, Azerbaijan’s Socar, LukAgip (an Eni, LUKoil joint venture) and others.
 
A decision, whether to pipe gas from the field into Austria via the proposed Nabucco (West) pipeline or into Italy through the rival Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) project, is expected to be made by mid-2013. Speaking in Vienna, Al Cook, head of BP's Azeri operations, said, “I genuinely believe both pipelines at the moment have an equal chance. There's certainly no clear-cut answer at the moment.”
 
BP is aiming for the first gas from Shah Deniz II to be delivered to existing customer Turkey in 2018. Early 2019 is the more likely date for the first Azeri gas to reach Western Europe via this major development often touted as one which would reduce European dependence on Russia for its energy supplies.
 
The Shah Deniz consortium owns equity options in both the pipeline projects and Cook did not rule out that both Nabucco (West) and TAP could be built in the long term. Specifically, BP's own equity options, which are part of the Shah Deniz stakes, are pegged at 20% in TAP and 14% in Nabucco. Cook said BP was not “actively seeking” to increase its stake in either project – a wise choice indeed.
 
On February 4, BP said its Q4 2012 net profit, adjusted for non-operating items, currency and accounting effects, fell to US$3.98 billion from US$4.98 billion recorded over the corresponding quarter last year. Moving away from BP, Royal Dutch Shell posted a 6% dip in 2012 profits to US$27 billion on the back of weak oil and gas prices and lower exploration and production (E&P) margins.
 
The Anglo-Dutch oil major reported Q4 earnings of US$7.3 billion, a rise of 13%. However, on an adjusted current cost of supply basis and one-off asset sales, the profit came in at US$5.58 billion. In particular, Shell’s E&P business saw profits dip 14% to US$4.4 billion, notwithstanding an actual 3% increase in oil and gas production levels. However, the company did record stronger refining margins.
 
Ironically, while acknowledging stronger refining margins, Shell confirmed its decision to close most of its Harburg refinery units in Hamburg, Germany. The permanent shutdown of much of its 100,000 bpd refinery is expected next month in line with completing a deal made with Swedish refiner Nynas in 2011.
 
Finally, in a typical Italian muddle, several oil executives in the country are under investigation following a probe into alleged bribery offences related to the awarding of oil services contracts to Saipem in Algeria. Eni has a 43% stake in Saipem which is Europe’s biggest oil services provider. While the company itself denied wrongdoing, the probe was widened last Friday to include Eni CEO Paolo Scaroni.
 
The CEO’s home and office were searched as part of the probe. However, Eni is standing by their man and said it will cooperate fully with the prosecutor’s office in Milan. So far, Pietro Franco Tali (the CEO of Saipem) and Eni’s Chief Financial Officer Alessandro Bernini (who was Saipem’s CFO until 2008) have been the most high profile executives to step down in wake of the probe. Watch this crude space! That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!
 
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© Gaurav Sharma 2013. Photo 1: Asian oil rig © Cairn Energy. Photo 2: Gas extraction site © Chesapeake Energy.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

BP fishes, ETP swoops & Chesapeake stumbles

Three corporate stories have caught the Oilholic’s eye over the past fortnight and all are worth talking about for very different reasons. With things improving Stateside and memories of a Russian misadventure fading, oil major BP announced on Tuesday that it had inked two production sharing agreements and aims to begin new deepwater exploration in Atlantic waters off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago. The company is already the Caribbean island nation’s largest oil & gas producer with average production for 2011 coming in the region of 408,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day.
Having been awarded blocks 23(a) and TTDAA14 in the 2010-2011 competitive bid rounds last summer, BP finds itself fishing for crude and gassy stuff in the two blocks which are 2,600 sq km and 1,000 sq km in area respectively. Local sources see the company as a ‘good corporate citizen’ and that ought to be comforting for BP in its march to rebuild trust under Bob Dudley.

While BP’s fishing, Energy Transfer Partners LP (ETP) is smiling having won plaudits around the crude world for its US$5.3 billion acquisition of Sunoco on April 30. A fortnight hence, market commentators are still raving on about the move especially as ETP’s swoop for Sunoco follows on from a clever buyout of Southern Union for US$5.7 billion. These acquisitions make ETP the USA’s second-biggest owner of pipeline assets behind Kinder Morgan whose merger with El Paso is imminent.

Most importantly, the Oilholic believes a swoop for Sunoco diversifies ETP’s pipeline portfolio adding around 9,700 km of oil and refined products pipelines to its existing network of 28,160 km of natural gas and natural gas liquids pipelines. With the move, oil revenues will account for over a quarter of its income. A Moody’s report prior to announcement of the deal suggested that together with Enterprise Production Partners, ONEOK Partners and Williams Partners, ETP was currently in a good place and among those best positioned for organic growth.

Growing production of oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids and higher margins are driving increased earnings and cash flow for midstream companies, especially those with existing gathering and processing or pipeline infrastructure near booming shale plays says the agency. While ETP’s smiling, the situation at Chesapeake Energy is anything but smiles. Under Aubrey McClendon, who co-founded the firm in 1989 in Oklahoma, it grew from strength to strength becoming the USA’s second largest natural gas producer and a company synonymous with the country’s shale gas bonanza. However, in a troubling economic climate with the price of natural gas plummeting to historic lows, Chesapeake has endured terrible headlines many of which were self-triggered.

Two weeks ago activist shareholders forced McClendon’s hand by making him relinquish the post of Chairman which he held along with that of Chief Executive over an arrangement which allows him to buy a 2.5% stake in all new wells drilled by Chesapeake. The arrangement itself will also be negotiated by 2014. The Oilholic finds the way McClendon has been treated to be daft for a number of reasons.

The arrangement has been in place since 1993 when the firm went public so neither the company’s Board nor its shareholders can claim they did not know. Two decades ago Chesapeake drilled around 20 wells per annum on average but by 2011 the average had risen to well above 1500 wells. That McClendon kept putting his money where his mouth is for so long is itself astonishing which is what the attention should focus on rather than on the man himself.

In later years this was largely achieved by borrowing at a personal level to the tune of US$850 million; Reuters reckons the figure is more in the region of US$1.1 billion. However, sections of the US media are currently busy sensationalising the Oklahoma man’s tussles within the company and as if this arrangement has emerged out of the blue.

Furthermore, the macroclimate and falling gas prices are now forcing the energy company’s hand with analysts at Fitch Ratings noting that it faces a funding shortfall of US$10 billion this year. In response, Chesapeake says it plans to sell US$9.0 billion to US$11.5 billion in assets this year. Word from Houston is that the sales of its Permian Basin property in West Texas and Mississippi Lime joint venture are a given by September. Some analysts believe asset sales may cap the figure of US$14 billion; though the view is not unanimous.

While this would help with liquidity issues, a sell-off of those assets currently producing oil & gas would most certainly reduce Chesapeake’s cash flow needed to meet requirements of its existing US$4 billion corporate credit facility secured earlier this week from Goldman Sachs and Jeffries Group. It matures in December 2017, with an interest rate of around 8.5% and can be repaid at any time over 2012 without penalty at par value.

As expected, Chesapeake has suffered a ratings downgrade; Standard & Poor's lowered its credit rating to "BB-" from "BB" citing corporate governance matters and a widening gap between capex and operating cash flow as the primary reasons. There is clear evidence of hedge funds short-selling Chesapeake’s shares.

Industry veteran and founder of BP Capital Partners – T. Boone Pickens – launched a strange albeit very vocal defence of McClendon on CNBC’s US Squawk Box on Wednesday which made yours truly smile. Pickens admitted that he had sold his position on Chesapeake – not because of what is going on but rather that he was very concerned about natural gas prices full stop.

“We got out of natural gas stocks and Chesapeake was one of them. We’re not long on Chesapeake now. Aubrey (McClendon) is a great Oklahoman and Chesapeake is a great company for Oklahoma City generating jobs and investment. Aubrey is a visionary…don’t bet against him…They’ll pull it off. You bet against Aubrey and you’ll scratch your loser’s ass,” said the industry veteran.

You have got to hand it to Pickens! If he's got something to say, there is no minding of the "Ps" and "Qs" – so what if its live television! As a former CNBC employee, the Oilholic wholeheartedly enjoyed Pickens’ soundbite and agrees that Chesapeake should make it out of this mess! However, bad headlines won’t go away anytime soon and its partly their own fault. That’s all for the moment folks! Keep reading, keep it ‘crude’!

© Gaurav Sharma 2012. Photo 1: Pipeline warning sign, Fairfax, Virginia, USA © O. Louis Mazzatenta/National Geographic. Photo 2: Chesapeake well drilling site © Chesapeake Energy.

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