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Energy & Science

An Oil Company Went Up in Flames, Burning Lenders and the Planet

Mark Siffin’s foray into the Permian Basin leaves behind financial and environmental wreckage that outlasts his presence in West Texas. 

Mark Siffin in Houston in February 2020.

Mark Siffin in Houston in February 2020.

Photographer: Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg

Mark Siffin’s love affair with the Permian era started when he was a teenager on a surfboard in Hawaii. He was bobbing off the coast of Oahu when Diamond Head, the state’s most recognizable landmark, caught his eye. Its formation, the product of a volcanic eruption many millennia ago, fascinated him. So when Siffin got the chance some 50 years later to tap an even older rock, he dove right in.

It was an unusual origin story for an oilman. But Siffin, 71, was no ordinary wildcatter. Sitting in an office in Houston on a rainy day last year, wearing navy corduroys and red sneakers, Siffin recounted the circuitous path he had taken to become the chief executive officer of MDC Energy LLC. He had dabbled in lots of businesses, from gemstones to art, before becoming a big-time real estate developer with projects in West Hollywood and Times Square. Then, in 2018, he snagged more than $700 million in loans to drill wells in the Permian Basin, an ancient seabed stretching across West Texas that’s now the biggest oil field in the U.S.