Day of reckoning for shale believers is finally here

President Obama believed him, wealthy international investors believed him, even Wall Street believed him for a little while, but the house of cards built by the high priest of shale gas is all tumbling down now. A few weeks ago the poster boy for the USA shale gas miracle, Aubrey McClendon, was forced to retire as head of Chesapeake Energy; the fracking behemoth he founded, but could never make profitable.

aubrey mcclendon

His retirement was not likely caused by Matt Damon’s movie Promised Land, or numerous scientists questioning the environmental negatives of shale gas fracking. McClendon was skewered instead by his own industry. It turns out fracking cannot provide 100 more years of shale gas, but instead perhaps 20. But that will only be true if the industry can find a way to make itself profitable and thus keep its sugar daddy investors content.

These revelations made by energy experts and money people began a few years ago, but the Chesapeake PR machine seemed to achieve some success by discrediting decent people like Deborah Rogers and Arthur Berman. More recently Forbes and the Rolling Stone did highly detailed exploratories, which were followed by SEC investigations into borrowing practices at over-leveraged Chesapeake.

I’m an environmentalist, but equally a pragmatist. Fracking is almost certainly bad for chemistry in water and methane all over the place; and it might even be wrong to say natural gas is some kind of lesser evil than coal, but the most unfortunate sin Aubrey committed is pretending that fracking makes money, when it doesn’t. This has done, and will eventually do an incredible amount of damage to the increasingly battered fossil fuel industry. Sadly McClendon has hurt the rest of us too.

It’s a fiasco. Like the ethanol fiasco. Like some of the mistakes the wind industry keeps making. Because of the nature of change and innovation and free enterprise, these fiascos are to some extent unavoidable. But we need to work very hard to avoid them. They discourage investors and governments from trying ‘new’ things. They create a deadly state of paralysis.

Changing our energy landscape is hard enough without people letting excessive greed and pride and fear cloud the issues. We all know that in the long run our energy mix will change. The question from an environmentalist point of view is will it change in time to preserve some of the beauty and health that is still offered by our planet? The question from a capitalist point of view is can I make money while helping the planet?

In my world, both of these are reasonable questions from valued players. I’m a realist. It’s the people who know how to put money together, that really make things happen in this world. So environmentalists need to cool the rhetoric and guide our money people in the right directions, by speaking their language. Remind them over and over that clean tech will be a 4 trillion dollar industry in about 6 or 7 years (Pembina said recently 3 trillion -still big); that it has already outperformed almost everything else during the downturn. There is money to be made from the sun and the wind.

Remind them that their existing businesses can experience share price growth and bigger dividends in the short term, 3 years or less, just by hiring someone to look at corporate energy conservation. The savings are massive and it’s low hanging fruit!

Money people need our guidance and they are often as powerful or more powerful than governments in shaping change. Let’s steer them away from the fiascos, toward better investments. Let’s work on this together.

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