Sunday, November 9, 2014

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.

I thought the title of this was from Euripides - but when I checked, I found no-one knew who first had the thought.  

But I was driven to reflect on the gods driving men mad when reading The Frackers, by a Wall Street Journal writer Gregory Zuckerman.  It is the tale of the men who changed the face of the world of energy during this century. 

George Mitchell was the son of a Greek goatherd, an immigrant to the US.  He saw the possibility of stimulating the flow of gas from tight rock by a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. It worked.  He died in 2013, aged 94, rich, famous and happy. 

Aubrey McLendon was related to old oil and mineral wealth.  He founded a company, Chesapeake, which almost cornered some of the most valuable rights to shale gas.  It grew rapidly to being one of the most valued companies on the stock exchange before gas prices fell dramatically because of over-supply.  McLendon had borrowed to the hilt, had spent as if there were no future, had paid himself as if no-one else had any interest in the profits, and had enriched his family's estate at the expense of the company with no apparent thought of the morality of what he was doing. Then the private equity groups invested in his company, who also had an interest in its profits, recognized that he was destroying the company through his greed, and forced him out with a mere $48 million as a golden handshake.

Tom Ward had been a schoolmate and then a partner of McLendon's.  He was the quiet foil to his extrovert partner.  When Chesapeake grew, he too started showing off his wealth.  However, gas prices fell after Hurricane Katrina, and suddenly the stock underpinning Chesapeake's debt was worth much less.  Ward could not agree to spending more and more to purchase rights. He left to found SandRidge Energy, focusing on the production of gas from conventional sources, not shale, but using fracking to stimulate his wells.  Before long, SandRidge was a stock exchange darling.  When the gas oversupply caused prices to drop again, SandRidge's stock fell out of favour, and Ward lost 90% of his wealth, over $2 billion, in less than 2 weeks. He fought back, even selling some of his own shares to the company at inflated prices, and finding creative ways for the company to fund his family.  Eventually the private equity groups backing the company had had enough of his costs.  He departed with a $90 million farewell gift.

Harold Hamm was the son of a poor Oklahoma farmer.  He was essentially unschooled, but he had a nose for oil.  His country-bumpkin manner fooled many who crossed his path, and he was able to amass huge acreage of rights in North Dakota that eventually turned the state into one of the biggest oil producers in North America.  He also struck it rich in Texas.  In 2012, his stake in Continental Resources was worth $12 billion - yet when he wanted to build his sister a larger house, she would only let him remodel her bathroom. He, however, fell foul of divorce laws, and in October 2014 it was reported that his wife was about to become his ex wife with a possible payment of $18 billion - the richest award ever.

These were some of the main characters in this extraordinary tale.  It had all the makings of a Greek tragedy - whence my turning to Euripides-who-wasn't. What drove these men to seek more and more wealth?  Most people would be content with a few million dollars, enough to keep them fed and housed for the rest of their lives.  But hundreds of millions? Thousands of millions?  Surely this is enough to excite the envy even of the gods.  No wonder they struck back!

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