A Huckster to Some. A Visionary to Others. Aubrey McClendon Has Died.

I never met Aubrey McClendon, but I once saw his famous motorcycle. It was a blue and chrome chopper whose awkward fuel tank might have made the bike nearly un-rideable. McClendon claimed it was the only motorcycle ever built to run on compressed natural gas (CNG), and a few years ago it was on constant display at oil industry trade shows. Sometimes it was lowered from the ceiling on a platform while strobes flashed and rock anthems blared.

McClendon of course was the Oklahoma City oilman who co-founded Chesapeake Energy and made billions as the leading apostle of everything natural gas. His company was once the single largest domestic producer of the fuel. But that explains his fame only in part. McClendon was fiercely anti-coal and once funneled $26 million in covert donations to the Sierra Club. (The funds were ultimately returned.) He also paid for the notorious 2007 Coal is Filthy ads, which may have helped squash a half dozen or so new coal fired power plants in Texas. It was an evangelism born of obvious self-interest but whose vision has largely come to pass. Many of the biggest U.S. coal companies are now bankrupt, and the United States is the world’s top producer of natural gas.

McClendon was also the part-owner of an NBA team, a braggart wine collector, a philanthropist, and quite possibly a criminal. On Tuesday a Federal grand jury charged him with conspiring to rig bids on oil and gas leases. He died a day later in an auto crash that appears to have been a suicide.

McClendon’s outlandish CNG motorcycle was a showpiece in his grand project, which was to make an ordinary fossil fuel — natural gas — somehow seem glamorous, avante garde, and essential to larger themes like environmentalism and national security. At the trade shows where Chesapeake Energy displayed the bike, it would often get fired-up to enormous applause from the engineers and geologists who never before had seen a rock star in their business. They suddenly found that personage in McClendon.

Before dying yesterday in a head-on collision with a concrete wall, McClendon had succeeded in pulling a lot of gas up from the earth and helping to de-throne King Coal. Beyond that his legacy is a muddle. He’ll be remembered as a reckless businessman. Fracking is still a four letter word in large swathes of the country, and most Green groups have rejected McClendon’s vision of gas as the clean fossil fuel.

Ultimately McClendon was both a visionary and a huckster who was hardly alone or uniquely instrumental in bringing about the shale gas boom. But he was the loudest, and everybody knew his name.

Disclosure: I am a shareholder in a private business whose customers have included Chesapeake Energy.

Photo Credit: American Energy Partners

Originally published at west.energy on March 3, 2016.