Chesapeake Energy Profit Tumbles on Wrong-Way Natural Gas

Chesapeake Energy Corp., which yesterday cleared its outgoing chief executive officer of misconduct after a 10-month probe into his personal finances, said fourth-quarter profit dropped on wrong-way bets on the price of natural gas.

Net income fell to $300 million, or 39 cents a share, from $472 million, or 63 cents a share a year earlier, the Oklahoma City-based oil and gas explorer said in a statement today. Excluding certain one-time gains and losses, Chesapeake said it earned 26 cents a share. It had been expected to post adjusted per-share profit of 14 cents, based on the average of 32 analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

Chesapeake received an average $2.07 per thousand cubic feet of gas during the final three months of 2012, a 47 percent decrease from a year earlier, according to the statement. The company failed to fully capitalize on the first increase in average quarterly gas prices in more than a year because of hedging contracts that locked about three-fourths of its gas output into below-market prices.

The earnings announcement followed the culmination of an internal inquiry into CEO Aubrey McClendon’s use of private stakes in company-owned wells to borrow more than $800 million from some of the company’s biggest financiers. The review found no intentional misconduct on the part of McClendon.

Transactions Reviewed

The investigation by the board’s audit committee and the Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell LLP law firm involved more than 50 interviews with executives from Chesapeake and other companies, according to yesterday’s statement. The transactions reviewed included McClendon’s borrowings from EIG Global Energy Partners LLC, a private-equity firm that bought preferred shares in two Chesapeake subsidiaries in 2011 and 2012.

The investigation weighed on Chesapeake’s shares, compounding the impact of slumping gas prices that eroded cash, triggering job cuts, accelerated borrowing, asset sales and curtailments of some drilling projects.

Chesapeake raised gas output by 2.9 percent during the quarter to 280 billion cubic feet, according to the statement. Crude output from the company’s wells jumped 69 percent to 8.936 million barrels for the period and production of so-called gas liquids such as propane and butane increased by 3.5 percent.

Crude Increases

Gas comprised 77 percent of Chesapeake’s output during the fourth quarter as the company pumped more crude, down from 82 percent a year earlier, the company said.

For 2013, Chesapeake has hedged 50 percent of projected gas production at an average price of $3.62 per million British thermal units, according to the statement. The company has hedging contracts in place for 85 percent of this year’s oil output at an average price of $95.45 a barrel.

Chesapeake fell 0.3 percent to $20.19 at the close in New York.

U.S. gas futures averaged $3.544 per million British thermal units during the final three months of 2012, a 2 percent increase from $3.476 a year earlier, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. It was the first year-over-year increase in average quarterly prices since the April-to-June period of 2011.

Falling Shares

Chesapeake shares have declined 18 percent in the past year amid a glut of gas from North American shale wells, two successive winters of warmer-than-normal weather in some of the largest U.S. fuel markets, and a collapse of investor confidence in McClendon’s strategy and decision-making.

McClendon agreed on Jan. 29 to retire from the company he co-founded in 1989 and built into what was for a time the preeminent U.S. gas producer. As one of the pioneers of the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques that triggered a renaissance in U.S. energy production, McClendon amassed gas and oil fields covering an area equivalent to half the size of New York state.

The 53-year-old McClendon’s empire began to crumble in March and April last year amid revelations that he’d used personal stakes in thousands of company-owned wells as collateral for more than $800 million in private loans. He was stripped of the chairmanship in June at the behest of Chesapeake’s largest investors, Southeastern Asset Management Inc. and billionaire Carl Icahn.

No successor CEO has been named. McClendon agreed to remain with the company until April 1 as the CEO search proceeds, Chesapeake said in a Jan. 29 statement.

The company may need to sell as much as $9 billion in assets this year after shedding about $11 billion in oil fields and pipelines in 2012 to plug a funding shortfall, said Brian Gibbons, an analyst at CreditSights Inc.

((Chesapeake scheduled a conference call to discuss fourth-quarter results for 9 a.m. New York time. To listen, go to

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