louisiana fracking

A fracking giant's fall

Chesapeake Energy was a fracking pioneer on a meteoric rise. Last week, it fell to Earth.

Historians generally place the invention of fracking in a gas field in southwestern Kansas in 1947.


It remained largely a novelty until the late 1980's, when a petroleum geologist named George Mitchell found a cost-efficient way to shatter shale rock with a high-pressure mix of water, sand, and chemicals, collecting the oil or gas released in the "fracturing."

Aubrey McClendon co-founded Chesapeake Energy in 1989, just in time to see natural gas prices begin a steady growth pattern.

They fracked shale patches from Texas to Pennsylvania. By the early 2010's, McClendon was a billionaire, and Chesapeake had cracked the Fortune 500.

Big Oil titans and small operators alike loved fracking. It changed the face of the oil and gas industry. Power plants run on fracked natural gas ran cheaper than coal or nuclear plants. This dealt what may turn out to be mortal blows to both coal and nuke energy in the U.S.

But who else loved fracking? Many environmentalists embraced fracked natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to cleaner energy—far from ideal, but better than dirty coal or petroleum. The Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign took $25 million from fracking companies and executives, much of it from McClendon and Chesapeake, who were happy to have the venerable environmental group as an unwitting wing man in kneecapping a competing industry.

When the donations were exposed, Sierra cut ties with McLendon et al., but they kept the $25 million.

The "bridge fuel" increasingly was infested with trolls: Shady land deals, the environmental harm, an alarming increase in earthquakes in faultless Oklahoma, and more.

But oh, how the money rolled in. Fracking, in a word, flourished. The U.S. arguably achieved its coveted status as a net energy exporter. The industry was worth trillions.

Already a high-roller, Aubrey McClendon was made for the part of tycoon. He led a team of investors who bought the Seattle SuperSonics and moved the team to Oklahoma City in 2008, where the newly-named Thunder play in Chesapeake Energy Arena.

But McClendon's penchant for extravagant spending on personal luxuries—often on the company's dime—and allegations of multiple conflicts of interests, put him at odds with the board of a company he viewed as his own.

Chesapeake's stock price peaked in 2014, at more than $1,300 per share. But oil prices began a sharp decline, and a federal antitrust indictment loomed for Aubrey McClendon. He was fired at year's end.

On March 1, 2015, Aubrey McClendon was indicted on federal antitrust charges. The next day, McClendon drove his car at high speed directly into a concrete wall. He died instantly. Oklahoma's Medical Examiner ruled the death an accident.

Last year, another boisterous fracking kingpin called the industry a "disaster."

More evidence of fracking's environmental disasters continue to pile in.

An oil and gas glut deepened. Layoffs cut deeply into Chesapeake's 13,000-person workforce. At the time of its Chapter Eleven bankruptcy filing on June 28, its stock price stood at $2.99 a share.

The stories of Aubrey McClendon and Chesapeake Energy—the man and the company who fell to Earth—are a Hollywood script that can write itself.

They changed the world's energy industry.

The question remains: Eventually, we'll find out how much, and in what direction.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.

Contact him at pdykstra@ehn.orgor on Twitter at @Pdykstra.

Banner photo: A natural gas fracking well near Shreveport, Louisiana. (Credit: Daniel Foster/flickr)

Q&A: Robert Bullard led a ‘huge’ delegation from Texas to COP27 climate talks in Egypt
insideclimatenews.org

Q&A: Robert Bullard led a ‘huge’ delegation from Texas to COP27 climate talks in Egypt

Robert Bullard has watched the concept of environmental justice grow from an obscure notion in Houston in the 1970s into a high-profile global movement aimed at abetting pollution and climate change.  Bullard, a former dean and professor at Texas Southern University, has authored 18 books on environmental justice, and has attended 18 United Nations climate […]
Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

Fight over Warnock’s Senate record comes down to electric vehicles
www.nytimes.com

Fight over Warnock’s Senate record comes down to electric vehicles

Hyundai’s huge new plant outside Savannah could be a model for bipartisanship and a central achievement for Raphael Warnock, whose biggest efforts otherwise fell short. But Republicans aren’t giving him credit.
How an early oil industry study became key in climate lawsuits
e360.yale.edu

How an early oil industry study became key in climate lawsuits

For decades, 1960s research for the American Petroleum Institute warning of the risks of burning fossil fuels had been forgotten. But two papers discovered in libraries are now playing a key role in lawsuits aimed at holding oil companies accountable for climate change.
Democrats in control: Advocates want action on justice, climate and “stronger leadership” from Gov. Whitmer
www.greatlakesnow.org
Department of the Interior

Peter Dykstra: Public disservants

The U.S. Department of the Interior oversees public lands, national parks and wildlife refuges, and has a major impact on the nation's environmental direction.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
Europe forest

EU’s new climate change plan will cause biodiversity loss and deforestation: Analysis

In a plan full of sustainable efforts, the incentivizing of biomass burning has climate experts concerned.

United Nations climate change

Op-ed: It’s time to re-think the United Nations’ COP climate negotiations

Instead of focusing on negotiations, let the main event be information sharing, financing and partnerships that produce faster technological change.

population environmental

Op-ed: What the media gets wrong about the new world population numbers

The last time that we lived within the productivity limits of our planet was about 50 years ago — that is a problem.

katharine hayhoe

Peter Dykstra: Journalists I’m thankful for

My third annual list of the over-achieving and under-thanked.

sperm count decline shanna swan

A new analysis shows a “crisis” of male reproductive health

Global average sperm count is declining at a quicker pace than previously known, chemical exposure is a suspected culprit.

WATCH: The latest evidence of widespread sperm count decline

WATCH: The latest evidence of widespread sperm count decline

"Pregnant women, and men planning to conceive a pregnancy, have a responsibility to protect the reproductive health of the offspring they are creating."

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.