HOUSTON (Reuters) - Chesapeake Energy Corp ousted its former chief executive Aubrey McClendon last April after a governance scandal and a liquidity crisis. But the former boss retains financial ties to the second-largest U.S. natural gas company, and he is using them to try to change company plans.
A firm run by McClendon is attempting to force Chesapeake (CHK.N) to drill 12 multi-million dollar wells in Louisiana's Haynesville Shale at a time when Chesapeake is trying to rein in spending and cut debt to focus on other shales, according to a lawyer for Chesapeake.
As a legacy of his tenure as a Chesapeake founder, McClendon has personal stakes of 2.5 percent in nearly all of the tens of thousands of wells the company developed. He is also entitled to a slice of new ones, and he has asked Louisiana regulators to order Chesapeake to follow his drilling plan, saying more natural gas production on the land would benefit the state and landowners.
The move is a sign that the interests of both sides are diverging, but existing contracts mean the two sides will likely be partners for years to come.
McClendon's Larchmont Resources LLC, which holds his Chesapeake well stakes, has petitioned regulators from Louisiana's Office of Conservation to rule a dozen new natural gas wells are needed in two fields where Chesapeake has already drilled four. The Office of Conservation oversees the state's hydrocarbon industry.
At an often heated hearing on Larchmont's application in January, Larchmont's and Chesapeake's lawyers squared off arguing their case before a panel of regulators.
David Ogwyn, a lawyer who represented McClendon's firm, argued at the hearing that more wells were needed on Chesapeake's acreage to recover the maximum amount of natural gas in the reservoir.
"Chesapeake is seeking to use their designation as operator as a shield," to stall development and "hold hostage the minerals of the state," Ogwyn said.
Chesapeake counters that it, as the majority partner and operator, would normally call the shots on drilling.
A minority stakeholder like McClendon shouldn't be able to force Chesapeake "to drill wells it doesn't want to drill," Randy Songy, a lawyer representing Chesapeake, told the Baton Rouge hearing.
"We hope this is the first and last of these wasteful hearings," Songy said.
Patrick Courreges, a spokesman for Louisiana's Office of Conservation said the request by McClendon may be without precedent. The agency said it is considering whether the minority owner even has the standing to make its request.
The Office of Conservation is charged with regulating the production of oil and gas, permitting wells and their spacing, and encouraging development.
John-Mark Beaver, a McClendon representative, told regulators that Larchmont is prepared to spend $10 billion drilling shale wells in Louisiana over the next 10 years.
He did not say if McClendon had raised any of those funds, but he reminded the commissioner that McClendon "discovered" the Haynesville while at Chesapeake, spearheading the first large-scale development in the area.
Beaver declined to comment on the specifics of Larchmont's plans after the hearing.
Two landowners who spoke to the panel supported McClendon.
"I want to see this acreage developed," Ray Lasseigne, who owns mineral rights on the disputed acreage, told regulators.
If the commissioner handling the case rules in favor of McClendon's firm, lawyers and people familiar with the case said, Chesapeake likely will drill the wells, given the regulator's expansive authority. Decisions are usually handed down within 30 days of a hearing.
Chesapeake is undergoing a rigorous belt-tightening following years of hefty spending by McClendon, who acquired millions of acres in North American shale basins, purchases that helped swell the company's debt as high as $14 billion in 2008.
Drilling a Haynesville well typically costs around $8 million to $10 million, according to analysts, so a dozen new wells could cost an additional $120 million.
While opposing McClendon at the hearing, Chesapeake on February 6 it said it would drill in the Haynesville this year, spending about 10 percent there of its roughly $5 billion drilling budget. It is not clear that the increase has anything to do with McClendon's push and neither side would comment.
Chesapeake's plan to put more rigs in the Haynesville took analysts by surprise because the company operates in other fields, including the oil-producing Eagle Ford in Texas, that bring better returns.
"I don't know why anyone would aggressively go after Haynesville production right now outside of core drilling areas," Mark Hanson, oil and gas company analyst with Morningstar in Chicago.
A spokesman for McClendon declined to comment. Many gas wells drilled in Louisiana would currently be unprofitable because most lack lucrative liquids, like oil, but natural gas futures have rallied more than 40 percent so far this year as cold weather saps supplies. That has prompted bullish talk in the sector.
McClendon became a towering figure in the U.S. energy industry before over-spending caused capital shortfalls at Chesapeake. The company is under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, after Reuters reported in April 2012 that McClendon arranged for more than $1 billion in loans to finance his share of drilling costs from firms that were also lenders to Chesapeake.
Chesapeake's board cleared McClendon of any intentional wrongdoing last year, however, and McClendon retains substantial respect among a large swath of the industry and investors.
Since leaving the company he founded, McClendon, 54, started his own oil and gas firm and has already raised about $4 billion for drilling in the United States.
The plan that gave McClendon stakes in Chesapeake wells, called the Founders Well Participation Program, is slated to end for new wells on June 30 of this year.
Even after the program ends, though, McClendon will remain "one of the company's largest joint interest owners," according to an SEC filing. By contract his stakes guarantee him quarterly updates from Chesapeake on operations.
And while McClendon's firms will pay $50,000 monthly for some services beginning in July, Chesapeake will also extend a $50,000 per month credit "to reduce the marketing fees billed by the company or its affiliates," according to the agreement.
The conclusion, said one Chesapeake investor who asked to remain anonymous, is that McClendon will have a business relationship with Chesapeake for years to come.
"They are going to have him around for the next 30 years if the wells keep producing," the person said.
Reporting By Anna Driver; Editing by Terry Wade and Peter Henderson