Christopher Helman – Forbes —It has been a miraculous decade for American Oil and Gas. Thanks to their enterprising innovations in directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing, domestic petroleum output has tripled over the past decade to more than 12 million barrels per day, while supplies of natural gas have surged 60% to a daily 113 billion cubic feet.
The biggest overall beneficiaries have been everyday Americans—who now pay $100 billion less per year for fossil fuels. And because gas burns far cleaner than coal (which has lost a third of its market share), our national carbon dioxide emissions have dropped 15% from the 2007 peak.
To be sure, there have been some downsides to the fossil fuel glut—particularly the hundreds of billions of dollars lost amid the ongoing slide of shares in E&P companies. And Big Oil’s resilience has attracted fresh animosity from activists like Time Magazine heroine Greta Thunberg who wants to see frackers up “against the wall” for global warming reparations.
But all in all, it’s been a magnificent run for oilpatch entrepreneurs, pipeline tycoons and gas arbitrageurs who have made (and lost) great fracking fortunes. We’ve covered many of their stories in Forbes, so on account of it being the end of a wild decade, it’s a good time to review The Biggest Names Of The Great American Oil & Gas Boom.
AUBREY MCCLENDON: “AMERICA’S MOST RECKLESS BILLIONAIRE” BUILT CHESAPEAKE ENERGY AND DIED IN A FIERY CRASH, 2016.
The cofounder of Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy set the shale gas boom in motion by borrowing more than $10 billion to gobble up drilling rights to the gas under millions of acres of cow pastures. Nearly all of his Chesapeake stock got wiped out in late 2008 margin calls (when shares collapsed from $62 to $15), but he clawed his way back onto the Forbes 400 list. In 2011 we put him on the cover of Forbes as “America’s Most Reckless Billionaire” and revealed how he enriched himself at the expense of shareholders via his “founders well participation” perk, which allowed him to take a personal 2.5% sweetheart equity stake in each of thousands of wells Chesapeake drilled.
McClendon’s modus operandi in a nutshell: use other peoples’ money to acquire massive swaths of land, then cherrypick the best locations for his own benefit. After Carl Icahn took control of Chesapeake’s board and finally booted McClendon in 2013, he moved down the street and built American Energy Partners (see: “Fracking’s Cowboy Rides Again”), raising another $10 billion and nearly losing it all again. He died in 2016, at age 56, when his natural gas-powered SUV crashed and burst into flames just a day after his federal indictment on felony charges of collusion and bid rigging. Some suspect foul play. Chesapeake has never recovered since the McClendon years—at a recent 79 cents, shares are at a 20-year low.
HAROLD HAMM: THE RICHEST FRACKER, OWNS 80% OF CONTINENTAL RESOURCES, WORTH $10 BILLION.
The man who has arguably made the biggest fracking fortune today owns 80% of the stock in Continental Resources, worth nearly $10 billion (we don’t debit him for $5.5 billion in corporate debt). The 13th child of Oklahoma sharecroppers, Hamm picked cotton barefoot before starting work at a gas station at age 16 to support his family. He drove oilfield water trucks (see “Birth Of A Wildcatter”) before borrowing enough to drill his first well in 1971.
In the 1990s Hamm discovered oil in a meteorite crater called the Ames Astrobleme, and had the vision to employ horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the Bakken region of North Dakota. In 2014 he appeared on the cover of Forbes as “The Man Fueling America’s Future,” predicting that domestic oil output could someday top 20 million bpd. In 2015 Hamm settled his divorce with a $975 million check to ex-wife Sue Ann. Hamm in December 2019 announced he was stepping down from the CEO role to become executive chairman; Continental produces more than 330,000 barrels per day.
CHARIF SOUKI: FIRST MOVER IN THE RACE TO EXPORT AMERICA’S SHALE GAS.
Before fracking for shale gas became a thing, it appeared certain that the United States would run short of domestic supplies and need to import gas from the likes of Qatar and Algeria. But getting gas across the ocean is tricky, and requires chilling it into a liquid at -260 degrees and special insulated tankers. Souki saw a big arbitrage opportunity. When Forbes first profiled Souki in 2005 (see “First Mover”), his Cheniere Energy had secured permits to build the first new liquefied natural gas import terminals in decades, along the Gulf Coast. Souki looked a genius by 2008, when Cheniere completed its first project and gas prices peaked at $14 per thousand cubic feet. But those high prices incentivized the fracking boom and a year later prices had fallen to $4 (and now less than $2.50). His new assets were already obsolete; Cheniere was near bankruptcy. “I built a $2 billion facility to import, and there were no imports,” he said. Undeterred, Souki flipped his bet and raised more than $20 billion to build LNG export facilities on the same sites, and earning a second Forbes feature story in 2013. His $142 million pay package in 2014 attracted the attention of Carl Icahn, who pushed him out in 2015 in part because he thought Souki’s plans for additional LNG export project were a waste of shareholder capital. Souki launched a new public company called Tellurian to develop the projects, in which Cheniere, ironically, now wants a stake. Cheniere shares are up 20-fold over the decade. “It’s a revolutionary thing, absolutely astonishing, that America will be an exporter of hydrocarbons,” says Souki.
Trevor Rees-Jones: “7 Deals, 7 Years, $7 Billion.”
He started as a bankruptcy attorney but by the early 1980s decided it would be more fun to make the deals than to clean up after them. “I just couldn’t stand being a lawyer,” he told me. “I found myself bored to death by the legal aspects. But I was fascinated by the oil and gas business—putting deals and prospects together.” Rees-Jones began drilling for gas in the Barnett shale near Fort Worth, teaming up with Ross Perot Jr. Helming his Chief Oil & Gas, Rees-Jones moved aggressively, getting in and out early from new fields. In 2009 he sold some Marcellus shale acres in Pennsylvania for $400 million and some more in 2010 for $460 million. In 2011 Chevron paid $1.8 billion for another Marcellus chunk, and in 2012 he dealt a pipeline network for another $1 billion. Rees-Jones’s timing was impeccable; after prices cratered, he turned around and bought choice acres overlapping his remaining Marcellus position from Chesapeake for $500 million. In 2016 he appeared on the cover of Forbes with the headline “7 Years, 7 Deals, $7 Billion.” Rees-Jones safaris in Africa and keeps a herd of addax and zebra on his 26,000 acre Cook Canyon Ranch west of Fort Worth, where Heather Locklear was the surprise guest at his 60th birthday party. He still operates Chief Oil & Gas, which is one of the biggest privately owned gas producers in the nation, and in recent years has diversified his $3.8 billion fortune into mineral rights into the Permian Basin.
Richard Kinder: Enron president turned pipeline king built Kinder Morgan.
Kinder was president of Enron before Ken Lay nudged him aside in favor of Jeffrey Skilling. When he left in 1997, five years before Enron’s implosion, he teamed with Bill Morgan to buy some tired pipelines and a terminal that Enron wasn’t using anymore, and for $40 million Kinder parlayed that into an empire now comprising more than 80,000 miles of pipeline and 200 terminals that handle some 3 million barrels of oil and 60 billion cubic feet of gas per day. In a 2012 feature, Forbes called him “the most important man in the American energy boom.” In 2014 he consolidated three publicly traded companies into one, then in 2015 he stepped down from the CEO spot. A voracious reader, his hero is Winston Churchill. Kinder says that reading how great leaders tackled times of crisis, he said in a 2015 Forbes Q&A, is “more instructive than all the self-help books you could read in the world.” In Houston, Kinder has donated more than $100 million toward the expansion of public parks and museums. His estimated net worth is $7.5 billion.
Mark Papa: Transformed Enron Oil & Gas into fracking juggernaut EOG Resources.
Another Enron survivor has become perhaps the most well respected independent oil company of the fracking boom. While running Enron Oil & Gas, Mark Papa ended up butting heads with Jeff Skilling over strategy and agitated for what he calls an “acrimonious divorce,” which he got in 1999. Following on the heels of fracking pioneer George Mitchell, the renamed EOG Resources drilled in Louisiana, Pennsylvania and North Dakota but made its biggest finds in the Eagle Ford shale of south Texas. When Forbes profiled Papa in 2013, EOG was producing 190,000 barrels per day, which has since grown to more than 450,000 bpd. He retired that same year but couldn’t stay away for long, returning in 2017 to helm Riverstone-backed startup Centennial Resource Development and drill in the Permian. Asked if he could replicate EOG’s success, he told Forbes, “Yeah when pigs whistle. You can’t really replicate EOG, that’s once in a lifetime.” Indeed so. Centennial shares are down 75% in the past 18 months.
Scott Sheffield: Led Pioneer Natural Resources to find a new bonanza in old oil fields.
Sheffield became CEO of Pioneer Natural Resources when it was formed from the merger of Mesa Petroleum and Parker & Parsley in 1997. The company had extensive legacy holdings in the conventional oil fields of the Permian basin in west Texas, which were thought to be largely played out. When the early innovations in directional drilling and fracking discovered vast new opportunities, it dawned on Sheffield that Pioneer was sitting on an unappreciated goldmine—680,000 acres in the Permian. In 2010 he directed his geophysicists to analyze their decades of data. “That’s when everybody’s lights just went on,” he told Forbes in 2014. Indeed, the Permian, with at least a half-dozen viable layers of drillable shale, has since emerged as America’s oil motherlode, and Pioneer has grown into a leader, its Permian output surging from 50,000 bpd in 2011 to more than 400,000 today. Sheffield retired in 2016, but returned to lead the company again in 2019. Shares are up 180% in a decade.
Bryan Sheffield: This oilpatch prince became a billionaire before age 40 with Parsley Energy.
In 2008, at age 29, Bryan Sheffield (Scott’s son) took over operation of 109 old oil wells that his grandfather Joe Parsley had drilled in the Permian basin in the 1960s and ’70s. It was a lucky break for this oilpatch prince, who named his new company Parsley Energy and found himself in the right place at the right time in 2009 when oil prices collapsed and he was able to lease up new drilling acreage on the cheap. Dad’s connections helped. By 2014 the Permian was booming, and Sheffield raised $1 billion in an IPO. He told us all about it for this 2014 magazine feature. Sheffield’s 34% stake made him a billionaire in 2016, though the value of his stake has since fallen to roughly $550 million. Sheffield retired from the CEO role in 2018.
Jeffery Hildebrand: Built Hilcorp Energy into America’s biggest privately owned oil company.
Hildebrand was early into the Eagle Ford shale oil and gas trend across south Texas and in 2011 sold Hilcorp’s acreage there to Marathon Oil for roughly $2 billion. In 2012 he jettisoned his Gulf of Mexico holdings for $550 million. He reinvested into the Utica shale play in Ohio, and in 2018 bought ConocoPhillips out of New Mexico’s San Juan Basin for $3 billion. But Hilcorp’s big focus the past 7 years has been Alaska, where it’s consolidated control over Marathon and Chevron’s offshore fields in the Cook Inlet, and also acquired more than $7 billion in assets from BP, including operatorship of the famous Prudhoe Bay oil field. In the Beaufort Sea, off the North Slope, Hilcorp is building the Liberty project, including a 9-acre artificial island from which to drill for oil in iceberg alley. In 2015 he spent about $100 million giving every employee a $100,000 bonus—reward for having doubled the size of the company in five years. Hildebrand, a former Exxon geologist, cofounded Hilcorp in 1989. In 2003 he bought out partner Thomas Hook for $500 million. He owns country singer John Denver’s Windstar ranch in Aspen.
Vicki Hollub: The CEO of Occidental Petroleum is the first woman to run a big American oil company.
Oxy already had 50 years of drilling inventory in the Permian basin before Hollub led this year’s $40 billion acquisition of Anadarko Petroleum. Now she has a big enough position to keep going as long as the world still uses oil. “Just as the Permian Basin will be the last basin standing, so Occidental will be the last company standing,” she declared to Forbes for this 2017 magazine profile. The new challenge for Hollub, who started her career working on drilling rigs, is to convince investors (like shareholder activist gadfly Carl Icahn) that she knows what she’s doing. Oxy shares have sold off by more than 50% since March to levels not seen since 2005. Is the worst over? Daily production of more than 1.3 million barrels of oil (and gas equivalents) should be able to support Oxy’s juicy 8% dividend yield.
Phil Anschutz: The Denver billionaire has made fortunes in railroads, telecom and entertainment, but his first love is oil and gas.
Anschutz has made a habit of being early in and early out of some of America’s best oil and gas fields. In 2010 he sold Marcellus acreage to Chesapeake for $850 million and Bakken fields to Occidental for $1.4 billion. He has reinvested into 500,000 acres in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, where his team is drilling the first of hundreds of wells to unlock what he believes could be billions of barrels of oil. The PRB will emerge as one of the most lucrative oil plays in America, he told Forbes for this 2019 magazine feature. And the best part, he says, is the way his acreage interfingers with the holdings of bigger oil companies, which might want to buy it.
Kelcy Warren: Pipeline king’s Pennsylvania project now under investigation.
Warren started in the pipeline business at age 13, sweeping out warehouses with the Sun Oil pipeline in East Texas. Summers in high school he was a pipeline welder’s assistant. He started buying assets in the 1990s, and then more out of the wreckage of Enron, forming Energy Transfer Partners. In 2017, amid protests, he completed the 1,172-mile $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, which can transport 500,000 bpd. More recently, the FBI and state law enforcement have been investigating whether Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf received anything in return for helping push through construction permits for Energy Transfer’s $3 billion Mariner East II gas pipeline. Wolf has said he welcomes an investigation. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has issued more than $13 million in fines against the company for violations during pipeline construction. Investors have filed a class action lawsuit against the company over Mariner East II disclosures. Energy Transfer LP has a market cap of $34 billion. Forbes estimates Warren’s net worth at $4.1 billion.
Rex Tillerson: Led ExxonMobil into the shale game with $40 billion deal for XTO Energy.
In 2009 Forbes declared ExxonMobil “Green Company of the Year” for its $30 billion project to commercialize Qatar’s enormous supply of clean-burning natural gas by building what was then the world’s biggest LNG export complex. CEO Rex Tillerson followed that up with the $40 billion acquisition of XTO Energy—with its extensive U.S. shale gas fields and fracking expertise. Gas prices at the time of the XTO deal were around $5 per mcf and have never gotten back to that level since. “We probably paid too much,” Tillerson conceded recently. That wasn’t the only overpriced deal. Before leaving Exxon in 2017 to become Secretary of State, Tillerson personally negotiated with Sid R. Bass of the billionaire Fort Worth Bass brothers to acquire their long-held acreage in the Permian basin of New Mexico and Texas for $6 billion. In the nearly three years since, shares in Permian-focused Parsley Energy, Concho Resources, Laredo Petroleum and Cimarex have fallen by half. In 2018 Forbes featured continued efforts by new CEO Darren Woods to greenwash its reputation with such ventures as milking cleaner oil out of genetically engineered algae.
Carl Icahn: Agitator for change at Chesapeake, Cheniere, Occidental.
Icahn can’t stay away from energy investments, and over the past decade he has likely caused more stress for management teams than any other activist. In 2013 he pushed Aubrey McClendon out of Chesapeake. In 2015 he did the same to Cheniere Energy’s Charif Souki and Freeport-McMoRan’s legendary CEO Jim Bob Moffett. He scored big gains on CVR Refining as well as American Railcar, which makes tanker cars for hauling crude oil from fields not yet served by pipelines. He’s also invested in Permian pure-play Diamondback Energy. This year he’s set his sights on Vicki Hollub at Oxy, calling her “arrogant” and dissing her Anadarko deal as “misguided and hugely overpriced” and “grossly negligent.” Oxy should have been a seller, he said, not a buyer.
The Rice Brothers: From shale startup to control of the nation’s biggest gas producer.
Daniel Rice III, a fund manager at BlackRock founded Rice Energy as a personal investment in 2007 to explore for gas in the Marcellus shale region. Soon his sons Toby, Derek, Daniel IV, and Ryan were running the show. Derek in 2014 was selected for the Forbes 30 Under 30 at age 28. They raised more than $1 billion, took both Rice Energy and its pipeline division public, then sold it all in 2017 for $7 billion in cash and stock to Pittsburgh-based EQT (parent of Equitable Gas). Dismayed by lackluster management, in late 2018 they launched a bid (backed by D.E. Shaw and Elliott Management) to wrest control of EQT and won a proxy battle, culminating in the July appointment of Toby Rice, 37, as CEO. “Rice Energy was a company we started out of an apartment in Pittsburgh,” he reportedly said. “We transformed it into a top-1o natural gas producer, and we can transform EQT.” Pumping more than 3.6 billion cubic feet per day, EQT is already the nation’s biggest gas producer—the challenge of the next decade for these shale-ennial bros is how to make it profitable.