Major League long-form journalism.
A BusinessWeek Feature:
Could Shale Gas Reignite the U.S. Economy?
Unlocking vast reserves of shale gas could solve the energy crisis, the jobs crisis, and the deficit. Now, about fracking’s safety ...
In late 1998, Chesapeake Energy (CHK), an independent natural gas producer based in Oklahoma City, exemplified an industry in decline. The company’s stock price had fallen over two years from above $34 a share to 75¢. Its market value tumbled 93 percent, to $72 million. “They’re running up a down escalator,” Michael Spohn, an analyst at Petroleum Research Group, told Bloomberg News.
When Aubrey K. McClendon, Chesapeake’s chief executive officer and co-founder, announced he might sell the company, there was little interest. Falling gas prices had reduced the value of Chesapeake’s reserves from $2.1 billion to $661 million. “We’d had higher highs than others in the industry; then we had lower lows,” McClendon says with characteristic insouciance. “In this business, it’s good to have a short memory and thick skin.”
Good thing he didn’t sell. Thirteen years later, Chesapeake’s market value exceeds $18 billion. Its shares sell for about $28, up 8 percent this year. The company’s 120-acre neo-Georgian corporate campus bustles with construction crews building new office space. Its workforce has grown 30 percent in a year, to 12,200, and its recruiters have 700 jobs to fill. “The United States,” McClendon boasts, “has the capacity to become the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.”
A tall man who wears his wavy silver hair long by CEO standards, McClendon, 52, exudes the confidence of someone who’s certain he’s seen the future. Exploitation of newly accessible supplies of gas embedded in layers of what’s known as shale rock, he predicts, will help revive domestic manufacturing and change the terms of debate about global warming. “It’s a new industrial renaissance,” he says.
You’d expect that kind of exuberance from a man with everything to gain from seeing his vision made real, but it’s not just independent drillers such as Chesapeake that are talking big. ConocoPhillips (COP) is investing $2 billion in gas in 2011, up from $500 million two years ago. Other multinational oil giants, such as ExxonMobil (XOM) and Shell, are likewise diverting billions into domestic shale gas projects. “We believe so strongly in natural gas that it’s a major portion of our portfolio,” Conoco CEO James J. Mulva told an audience at the Detroit Economic Club in September. Last month, the potential for U.S. shale gas spurred Kinder Morgan (KMI) to acquire rival pipeline operator El Paso Corp. (EP) for $21.1 billion. It also drove the proposed $4.4 billion purchase of Brigham Exploration (BEXP) by Norway’s Statoil (STO).
Encouraged by the availability of inexpensive and cleaner domestic gas, some electric utilities are replacing their coal-burning capacity with gas-fired units. Energy-intensive manufacturers of chemicals, plastics, and steel are beginning to bring home operations that they exported years ago. “We believe natural gas must be part of any discussion on strengthening our country’s long-term economic health,” Mulva said in Detroit. “It should also be part of any discussion on improving energy security, protecting the environment, and, yes, creating jobs.”
On the economic potential of the nascent shale revolution, even some career environmentalists sound impressed, if cautious. “This thing is a potential game-changer,” says Fred Krupp, president of the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Shale production in the U.S. has increased from practically nothing in 2000 to more than 13 billion cubic feet per day, or about 30 percent of the country’s natural gas supply. That proportion is heading toward 50 percent in coming years. The U.S. passed Russia in 2009 to become the world’s largest producer of natural gas. An Energy Dept. advisory panel on which Krupp sits estimated in August that more than 200,000 jobs, both direct and indirect, “have been created over the last several years by the development of domestic production of shale gas.” At a moment of 9.1 percent unemployment nationally, additional decently paid work is just one potential benefit. “Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, emits less in the way of greenhouse gases, and avoids mercury and other pollutants from coal,” Krupp points out. “So this could be win-win, if—and this is a big ‘if’—we do it the right way.”...MUCH MORE