Drilling companies that once touted clean, green natural gas are going back to being big, brown oil companies. So do they have to change their lobbying pitch, and if so, how?
The primary talking point as natural gas vied for political market share was that gas burns twice as clean as coal. But industry’s messengers rarely failed to add that it’s 25 percent cleaner than gasoline or diesel.
That leaves the drilling business with a message disconnect. Several drilling companies carry blue flames or green stripes in their logos even as they assure their shareholders that they’re moving into oil as fast as they can.
“You can’t put your message out to Wall Street and not expect that it will get back to Washington, and vice versa,” said analyst Kevin Book, managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm ClearView Energy Partners, talking generally about the industry. “You can have dual-book finances, but it’s very hard to have dual-book messaging.”
The leading symbol of this shift is Aubrey McClendon, the brash and now embattled CEO of Chesapeake Energy Corp. He’s trying to make the sprint to the oil patch burdened by debt and under scrutiny for his complex financial relationship with the company he founded.
Not so long ago, McClendon painted a green stripe into the logo of the company he founded and branded it as “America’s Champion of Natural Gas.”
Back then, a cap-and-trade bill clamping down on emissions seemed almost inevitable, and McClendon was breaking the wildcatter allegiance to the GOP by saying he’d voted for Barack Obama for president.
McClendon blazed a path lined with money from Oklahoma to Washington and on toward the blue states. He drove the creation of America’s Natural Gas Alliance, or ANGA, and the American Clean Skies Foundation, which have put millions into making the nature-friendly case for natural gas. Famously, he even gave the Sierra Club $25 million to fight coal.
Gas was bountiful, its price yet unbattered by oversupply. It held the promise for some environmentalists of being a “bridge to a clean energy future.” Supporters like T. Boone Pickens touted it as the perfect complement to wind and solar.
Now, with natural gas prices sinking to historic lows while gasoline bobs along nicely just below the $4-a-gallon mark, drillers are fleeing to the safety of “black gold.” There are 276 fewer rigs drilling for natural gas than there were at this time last year, according to the Baker-Hughes Rig Count, and 425 more drilling for oil.