Debt-plagued Chesapeake Energy to sell $6.9 billion worth of its holdings

September 12, 2012

Staggering under high debt, Chesapeake Energy said Wednesday that it would sell $6.9 billion of gas fields and pipelines — another step in shrinking the company whose brash chief executive had made it a leader in the country’s shale gas revolution.

A combination of low natural gas prices and excessive borrowing has forced Chesapeake Energy chief executive Aubrey K. McClendon to move more of its focus away from gas and to sell off much of the vast holdings that had at one point made the Oklahoma-based company one of the nation’s top natural gas producers.

In addition, during the summer McClendon was at the center of controversy over personal loans to him and a series of land deals that has sparked a Justice Department investigation into allegations of collusion in Michigan state lease sales. In a boardroom shake-up, former ConocoPhillips chairman Archie Dunham became Chesapeake Energy’s chairman, and five new directors were installed by large investors.

Wednesday’s deal included the sale of the majority of Chesapeake Energy’s holdings in the Permian Basin in West Texas to Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron for $3.3 billion. Those holdings produce about 21,000 barrels a day of oil and gas liquids and 90 million cubic feet a day of natural gas, or approximately 5.7 percent of Chesapeake’s production during the second quarter. Chesapeake also sold nearly all its remaining gas-gathering and pipeline assets in four separate transactions worth about $3 billion.

The company’s stock closed at $19.89 a share, down 1 percent, giving it a market capitalization of $13.2 billion. As of June 30, Chesapeake had $14.3 billion in long-term debt. The company said it will use $4 billion of the proceeds from Wednesday’s sale to pay off term loans that are due in the fourth quarter of this year.

The very success of techniques for unlocking natural gas from shale rock has helped drive prices down to levels lower than any time in more than a decade. Chesapeake Energy has responded by delaying lease payments and selling stakes in its land holdings to major international partners, such as Tota.

By last month, it had cut in half the number of drilling rigs it was operating and lowered capital spending by $2 billion. It also boosted its production of crude oil and natural gas liquids, which fetch high prices, and let its natural gas production fall 7 percent.

Although it is selling off large amounts of undeveloped acreage, Chesapeake plans to hang onto about 1.3 million acres in Utica shale, which straddles the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line and is believed to be rich in natural gas liquids.

“They’re still in the midst of this transition to more liquids production than natural gas, and ultimately they should benefit,” said Scott Sprinzen, a debt ratings analyst for Standard & Poor’s. But, he added, “it will take an extended period to undo the leveraging . . . and the asset base will be narrower.”

Sprinzen said that the sale price Chesapeake received for its Permian Basin holdings was lower than expected, a reflection of plentiful gas supplies, low gas prices and Chesapeake’s weak bargaining position. The company received more than expected, however, for its natural gas-gathering and transmission operations, he said.

In a note to investors, Citigroup analyst Robert S. Morris said that Chesapeake has now sold $11.6 billion of assets, short of its $13 billion to $14 billion target but enough that “the company should not face any liquidity . . . issues through 2013.” He said that Chesapeake is “currently one of the most financially” leveraged large exploration companies and that that remained its “overriding constraint” on boosting oil and gas output.

McClendon said in a statement: “These transactions are significant steps in the transformation of our company’s asset base to a more balanced portfolio among oil, natural gas liquids and natural gas resources and production.”

In a 10Q filing last month with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Chesapeake warn­ed that it might write down the size and value of its natural gas reserves because low prices made some of those uneconomic. The company said it would have to lower the average price assumption by 97 cents to $3.15 a thousand cubic feet.

Steven Mufson covers the White House. Since joining The Post, he has covered economics, China, foreign policy and energy.
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