In an era where shale companies are begging for bailouts, laying off workers and shutting down drilling operations, the news that one high-profile operator has filed for bankruptcy isn’t a surprise. But Chesapeake has a prominent role in fracking’s sordid history, which makes its shaky status especially notable.
Aubrey McClendon And The ‘Drill, Baby Drill’ Fracking Boom
Oklahoma-based Chesapeake was the company most closely associated with the fracking boom of the early 2000s, thanks in no small part to Aubrey McClendon, its controversial, big-spending founder and CEO. The shale boom was never built to be sustainable, but it proved massively beneficial to McClendon himself, who bought lavish homes, an NBA franchise, and amassed a world-class wine collection.
When fracking was booming, McClendon was a constant figure in press coverage of the country’s supposed “energy renaissance.” What he was actually “pioneering” at Chesapeake was something else entirely: amassing massive debt while overseeing reckless drilling operations that ripped off landowners while polluting air and water — all to create a vast oversupply of gas. Just as significantly, fracking served as a lifeline to the fossil fuel industries, allowing oil and gas companies to keep spewing the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate catastrophe — all while claiming that fracking was actually good for climate change.
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Chesapeake Funded Friendly Politicians And Boosted ‘Bridge Fuel’ Propaganda
McClendon was a shrewd political operator. While Chesapeake paid next to nothing in taxes, it was shelling out millions of dollars to mostly Republican politicians who protected Chesapeake’s interests at the federal and state levels. McClendon was an early booster of a Pennsylvania attorney general candidate named Tom Corbett, who would go on to become governor and kick off the state’s disastrous fracking boom. One of the most dangerous companies fracking Pennsylvania in those days was none other than Chesapeake Energy, which racked up over 500 violations and massive fines for huge spills that contaminated water wells.
Under McClendon’s leadership, Chesapeake teamed up with power plant builders to launch a wave of gas-fired electricity projects, building new plants that would be supplied by fracking operations like Chesapeake. They would do it all by claiming this was actually environmentally beneficial. The company made substantial donations to major environmental organizations to bolster the bogus claim that gas could be a beneficial “bridge fuel.” It was a distrasously effective propaganda campaign that conned political leaders from both major parties — along with some green groups that should have known better than to accept the fossil fuel industry’s self-promoting spin.
The Chesapeake Energy House Of Cards Came Crashing Down
Even the best-run shell games eventually end. And time ran out for Aubrey McClendon. His stint at the helm of Chesapeake continued to attract scrutiny from investigative reporters and regulatory agencies that documented a slew of shady, monopolistic business practices which swindled landowners and enriched Chesapeake and its affiliated companies. The company settled high-profile lawsuits in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
McClendon was eventually forced out of the company in 2013. In 2016, he was charged as part of a collusion scheme to control oil and gas lease prices. McClendon died in a one-car accident the day after the indictments were announced.
Years after McClendon left, Chesapeake continued to struggle with massive financial problems; the company had almost $10 billion in debt at the end of last year. The current bankruptcy seeks to restructure much of that debt, but this is hardly a problem unique to Chesapeake. More than 200 fracking companies operating in North America have gone bankrupt in the last five years; dozens more are expected to do so this year.
Chesapeake is a garish symbol of what the fracking boom represents: Corporate greed, massive debt, and threats to our water, air and climate. The industry is in tatters now, but not before scammers like McClendon made themselves millions. The recent grand jury report in Pennsylvania offers fresh reminders that regulators and political leaders failed to protect the public. Companies like Chesapeake have capitalized on these failures for as long as they could. While its bankruptcy is a sign that the tide is turning, it’s on all of us to build a future completely free of fracking.
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