A day after being indicted by the federal government on bid-rigging charges, former Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon died in a fiery crash in Oklahoma City.
McClendon, the charismatic wildcatter who pioneered the fracking boom in the Barnett Shale and then across the country, was killed when his sport utility vehicle slammed into a concrete embankment Wednesday morning and burst into flames, Oklahoma City police reported.
The 56-year-old energy executive’s body was so badly burned that police said they could not determine whether he was wearing a seat belt. He apparently had been driving at high speed, but police said it was too early to tell if the collision was intentional.
Police hoped to get more data about the crash from the vehicle’s onboard computer, Oklahoma City police Capt. Paco Balderrama said at a news conference.
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“He pretty much drove straight into the wall,” Balderrama said. “The information out there at the scene is that he went left of center, went through a grassy area right before colliding into the embankment. There was plenty of opportunity for him to correct and get back on the roadway, and that didn’t occur.”
He pretty much drove straight into the wall.
Oklahoma City police Capt. Paco Balderrama
Late Tuesday, McClendon was indicted by a federal grand jury in Oklahoma and accused of conspiring to rig bids to buy oil and natural gas leases in northwest Oklahoma. It accused him of orchestrating a conspiracy between two companies not to bid against each other. In a statement, he vigorously defended himself, calling the charges “wrong and unprecedented.”
Members of the oil and gas industry — who referred to him simply as Aubrey — reacted with shock after hearing about his tragic death.
Legendary Dallas oilman T. Boone Pickens said he had known McClendon for nearly 25 years and described him as a “major player in leading the stunning energy renaissance in America.”
“He was charismatic and a true American entrepreneur. No individual is without flaws, but his impact on American energy will be long-lasting,” Pickens said.
He was charismatic and a true American entreprenuer. No individual is without flaws, but his impact on American energy will be long-lasting.
Legendary oilman T. Boone Pickens
“Shocked,” said Julie Wilson, who served as vice president of urban development in Fort Worth for Chesapeake and reported directly to McClendon for seven years. She referred to him as a “rock star” who could be motivating, uplifting, demanding, but someone you didn’t want to disappoint.
“I think a bright light has been turned out today in the field of domestic energy,” Wilson said.
McClendon, who craved the limelight, epitomized the recent rise and fall of the energy business. Besides running Chesapeake, he also was part-owner of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, which plays in the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
As chairman and CEO of Chesapeake, the lanky, silver-haired executive built the small company into an energy giant based largely on his devotion to modern hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — developed in the Barnett Shale.
While others companies initially had second thoughts about the process, McClendon embraced it along with horizontal drilling in an urban setting. His hard-charging personality turned Chesapeake into a company valued at $35.6 billion in 2008.
He loved every minute of his life and work and it was an infectious personality. A magnetic personality.
Julie Wilson, former Chesapeake executive in Fort Worth
“I think the Barnett Shale would have developed because there were a number of companies interested in developing it, but through Chesapeake he drove it to be developed faster than it probably would have,” said Ed Ireland, a professor at TCU and executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, an industry-sponsored group.
Under McClendon, Chesapeake cast a big shadow in North Texas, leading a leasing frenzy last decade, giving millions to charities and supporting events such as the annual Parade of Lights Christmas parade in Fort Worth. The company bought the Pier 1 Imports office tower near downtown, only to sell it later. What it was willing to pay for natural gas leases sent land prices soaring and made landowners rich.
“He was more responsible for the so-called land grab across the country than anyone else,” said Will Brackett, managing editor of the Powell Shale Digest in Fort Worth.
But just as quickly, McClendon’s fortunes turned when natural gas prices collapsed. He faced angry investors over conflicts at the company and was forced out in 2013. The company still faces hundreds of lawsuits alleging fraud over how it paid royalty payments.
After leaving Chesapeake, McClendon formed American Energy Partners L.P., which has raised more than $10 billion for acquisitions.
Wilson, who said she had communicated by email with McClendon just last week, prefers to remember the electric guy who she said was “the hardest-working man I have ever met.”
Although she said “a lot had been piled on him lately,” she said McClendon “loved every minute of his life and work and it was an infectious personality. It was a magnetic personality.”
This report includes material from The Associated Press and Bloomberg News.