This Shale Pioneer Refocusing on Natural Gas

Energy Investing, Oil

Forget oil—the real money is in natural gas.

Or at least that’s the message coming from a pioneer of the U.S. shale revolution, Chesapeake Energy (CHK).

From Prince to Pauper to Prince Again?

Once upon a time—when its stock was valued at more than $35 billion and its CEO, Aubrey McClendon, had the biggest pay package of any CEO of a listed firm—Chesapeake Energy was America’s best-known fracker.

LNG Tanker Grand Aniva anchored off the coast of Russia

But those glory days disappeared quickly, and Chesapeake became the poster child for the shale sector’s excesses.

About a year and a half ago, in the autumn of 2020, Chesapeake was in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings after the coronavirus pandemic-led crash in energy demand proved to be the final straw in the company’s fall from grace.

And for the industry more broadly, the prospects for liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports were looking bleak after a $7 billion contract to supply the French utility Engie went down the tubes on concerns over the emissions profile of U.S. natural gas.

Fast forward to 2022 and the picture has changed dramatically. Natural gas exports are booming!

Thanks to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions, Europe is in the middle of an energy crisis. It is buying up as much American LNG as it can. Those concerns about emissions are long forgotten.

In the first four months of the year, the U.S. exported 11.5 billion cubic feet a day of gas in the form of LNG, an 18% increase from 2021. Three-quarters of those exports went to Europe. And European leaders have pledged to ratchet up their imports by the end of the decade. There is also a massive opportunity in Asia, where LNG demand is set to quadruple to 44 billion cubic feet a day by 2050, according to a recent report released by think-tank, the Progressive Policy Institute.

And even here in the U.S., natural gas supplies look set to be tight this winter. Hot summer weather and high demands for power generation are sucking up supplies and leaving storage precariously low.

The investment bank Piper Sandler believes U.S. storage is on pace to fill just 3.4 trillion cubic feet of gas by the time winter arrives. That would be short of the 3.8 trillion cubic feet buffer usually needed to heat the country through a cold winter season. That could send already-elevated natural gas prices even higher in the months ahead.

These factors combined were behind the decision by Chesapeake Energy management to ditch oil in favor of gas.

Chesapeake: All in on Gas

OnAugust 2, Chesapeake announced its plan to exit oil completely and return to its roots as a natural gas producer. The company said it would offload oil producing assets in south Texas’s Eagle Ford basin, allowing it to focus solely on gas production from Louisiana’s Haynesville basin and the Marcellus Shale in Appalachia.

Its CEO Nick Dell’Osso said the company made the decision because of better returns from its gas assets—it has had more success driving down costs and improving efficiency there when compared with oil.

Chesapeake emerged from bankruptcy in February 2021, vowing to shift from its previous model of growth at all costs to one of capital discipline and higher shareholder returns.

The company has expanded its natural gas portfolio of assets since its emergence from bankruptcy. It bought gas producer Vine Energy for $2.2 billion last August to bolster its position in the Haynesville, which sits close to gas-export facilities on the US Gulf Coast. And in January, it bought Chief Oil & Gas, a gas operator in north-eastern Pennsylvania’s section of the prolific Marcellus shale field, for $2.6 billion. Chesapeake also recently offloaded its Wyoming oil business to Continental Resources, the company controlled by shale billionaire Harold Hamm.

In summarizing Chesapeake Energy’s strategy, Dell’Osso said, “What’s different today than the past… is that we are allocating capital in a way that maximizes returns to shareholders, rather than maximizing [production] growth.”

Speaking with the Financial Times, Del’Osso added: “The industry was built on [oil and gas production] growth expectations, and company stocks were valued on growth expectations. That all had to get broken down.” The “reset” had been painful, but management teams would stick with the new model, the CEO said.

The strategy seems to be working. In May, Chesapeake reported record-high adjusted quarterly free cash flow of $532 million from the first three months of 2022.

Also in the second quarter, it announced an agreement to supply gas with the Golden Pass LNG facility. Golden Pass LNG is a joint venture company formed by affiliates of two of the world’s largest and most experienced oil and gas companies: QatarEnergy (70%) and ExxonMobil (30%).

The company now plans to pay $7 billion in dividends over the next five years. That is equivalent to well over half of its current market capitalization!

Chesapeake boasts of its best-in-class shareholder return program. It has completed about a third of its $2 billion share and warrant repurchase program, and it raised the base dividend by 10%, to $2.20 per share annually.

The company has a juicy variable dividend as well. Its next quarterly dividend will consist of the $0.55 per share base dividend and a variable dividend of $1.77. Management projects that, in the third quarter, it will pay out total dividends of $275 million to $285 million. The total dividend payout for 2022 should come in at between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion.

Chesapeake’s yield is a very impressive 10% and I do not see that changing much as gas prices stay elevated. The stock is a buy anywhere in the $90s.

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