Chesapeake swears off big spending; shares jump

Tue Aug 7, 2012 3:10pm EDT

Chesapeake Energy Corporation's 50 acre campus is seen in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on April 17, 2012. REUTERS/Steve Sisney

Chesapeake Energy Corporation's 50 acre campus is seen in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on April 17, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Steve Sisney

(Reuters) - Chesapeake Energy Corp, bowing to investor pressure, said on Tuesday it plans to stop spending heavily on oil and gas properties next year in a strategic shift from land acquisition to resource development.

That news, plus assurances that the company will close a big deal for 1.5 million acres in West Texas, helped push the company's shares up 9 percent.

Chief Executive Officer Aubrey McClendon has spent heavily to amass more than 15 million acres (6 million hectares) in oil and gas basins around the United States, leaving the company awash in debt and unable to fund its operations without bringing in deep-pocketed partners or selling properties.

Big investors including Carl Icahn and Southeastern Asset Management's Mason Hawkins have pressured McClendon to reduce spending and sell assets to bridge an estimated $10 billion funding gap for this year.

Chesapeake is pledging to lower spending and focus on producing higher-priced oil and natural gas liquids from basins it considers key, while it sheds up to $14 billion in assets this year and up to $5 billion in 2013.

In addition, the Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, company will cut its capital budget by $6 billion next year, McClendon said. Its 2012 capex is estimated at $13 billion.

"We believe Chesapeake's performance can improve even further from this very high level as we progress from operations designed for new asset identification and capture to a more manufacturing-like operations approach," McClendon told analysts and investors on a conference call.

Still, investors will have to wait for change. Chesapeake raised its 2012 budget for drilling and well completion by $500 million and also hiked the amount of money it plans to spend on buying oil and gas properties to $2 billion from $1.6 billion.

Following a series of Reuters investigations raising questions about potential conflicts of interest on the part of McClendon and alleged collusion over land prices, Icahn and Hawkins took over the Chesapeake's board of directors in June.

McClendon, who co-founded the company, was also stripped of his title as chairman. Archie Dunham, a former CEO at ConocoPhillips, replaced him.

PERMIAN ON TRACK

Comments the company made around its sale of its 1.5 million acres in the Permian Basin also reassured investors. Three buyers have been identified for three packages, with the deals seen closing in the third quarter.

"There were some negative rumors that they were not going to get their Permian deal done," said Marshall Carver, analyst at CapitalOne Southcoast.

Carver estimates the Permian asset could sell for more than the $4 billion analysts initially expected.

Still, Chesapeake must find buyers for its slate of assets that are up for sale to cover a spending deficit this year and next.

"Aggressive 'land grabs' in the past are now leading to profitable harvesting through sales, investor participation agreements and production," Phil Adams, debt analyst at Gimme Credit, wrote in a note to clients. "But large asset sales and various partnership structures will be needed to fund very large near-term free cash flow deficits."

The planned sale of a stake in Chesapeake's acreage in the Mississippi Lime basin is also drawing strong interest from private equity and foreign firms and a deal could come in the fourth quarter, McClendon said on the call.

On Monday after the close of trading, Chesapeake reported higher second-quarter earnings that were lifted by a gain from the sale of its midstream master limited partnership.

Shares of Chesapeake were up 9 percent at $19.32 on Tuesday afternoon the New York Stock Exchange, where it was the second-most actively traded stock.

(Reporting by Anna Driver in Houston; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Jeffrey Benkoe, Dale Hudson, Matthew Lewis and Marguerita Choy)

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