[Editor's note: A version of this story appears in the March 2019 edition of Oil and Gas Investor. Subscribe to the magazine here.]

The first full week of February brought a sense of just how off-kilter 2019 is setting out to be.

Activist investors tore into two oil and gas companies. Two others explored sales. The market remained skittish. The Green New Deal was introduced in Congress, more political than practical. And on Twitter, Elon Musk and Mars began flirting.

On Feb. 8, a Twitter account belonging to Mars (@4thFromOurStar) proclaimed it wanted “only Elon.”

“I want you too baby,” Musk replied. Musk has said he would consider moving to Mars.

Musk tweeted toward the end of the day, taking time away from his chores leading rocket-ship maker SpaceX, as well as Tesla and Neuralink, a company which is working on brain-machine interfaces.

“When are you coming over babe?” Mars asked.

A good question, Musk’s investors may be thinking.

Here on Earth, firmly in the oil and gas ground, the chatter is less lively but the prospects just as distant. Sure, potential deals are stirring conversation—particularly with so few actual deals to distract the gossips.

But a strong current of disaffection is brewing. Activist investors have griped about bad management, poor returns and the use of private aircraft. They’ve called for action, including selling off companies and removing executives.

During a Feb. 5 conference call/public coup attempt, two of Rice Energy Inc.’s founders, Toby and Derek, held a conference call to explain why their $8.2 billion deal with EQT Corp. had flopped. Short version: They aren’t in charge of EQT. Yet.

RELATED: Things Get ‘Awkward’ For Rice Brothers Thanks To EQT Feud

The Rices’ ire is understandable given that about 80% of the $6.7 billion compensation Rice Energy received was tied to EQT’s equity.

Toby Rice told investors and analysts that, “What we are specifically offering is a qualified management team, including myself as the new CEO, and depending on the need, up to 15 leaders from Rice Energy who know what the evolved state of an industry leading, efficient, technology-driven E&P company looks like.”

He added, as casually as Michael Corleone might have, “This is not a personal attack on the current management team, but they simply do not possess the necessary experience or track record to navigate this path forward.”

Of course not. It’s strictly business.

EQT is reportedly planning to buy stock and shore up for a fight back with the Rices.

Halcón Resources Corp. was similarly torched on Feb. 4. Halcón has built an impressive Permian Basin presence at generally low acquisition costs. But little of the company’s other actions are sitting well with activist investor Fir Tree Capital Management LP. Fir Tree called for company to sell itself, cut excessive overhead costs and, somewhere along the way, replace the company’s management team.

Fir Tree owns 7.2% of Halcón’s stock, which has fallen by more than half since October. The company hasn’t delivered on commitments to de-lever its balance sheet, cut expenses or sell off asset, wrote Evan Lederman and David Proman, managing directors and partners at Fir Tree.

“No tangible progress has been made,” they wrote. The firm was particularly distressed by G&A costs of $40 million, which Fir Tree said are on par with much larger companies such as Centennial Resource Development Inc. and Jagged Peak Energy Inc. CEO Floyd Wilson’s compensation and use of a private jet for travel as sparked rage, particularly given jet costs were $800,000.

UPDATE: Halcón Resources CEO Floyd Wilson To Step Down

Halcón did not respond to an Oil and Gas Investor request for comment.

“When are you coming over babe?” Mars Tweeted at Elon Musk. (Source: Twitter.com)
Source: Twitter.com

Other companies are rolling ahead with plans to sell off assets.

With QEP Resources Inc.’s $735 million Haynesville Shale divestiture closed, the company has reportedly engaged Evercore Inc. to explore a sale following a surprise takeover bid by activist investor Elliott Management Corp. in early January for $2 billion. QEP still has $1.7 billion Williston Basin sale to close. [Editor's note: QEP Williston Basin sale was announced terminated Feb. 20, 2019.]

RELATED: QEP Resources Changes Course Following Terminated Bakken Sale

And Permian underdog Abraxas Petroleum Corp. said in late January it had hired Petrie Partners LLC to help identify options for its Bakken holdings, which loosely translates into “help the company sell it.” Abraxas would become a tempting Delaware Basin target with a Bakken divestiture, particularly given its 56,934 net acres in the Delaware.

Musk’s Twitter conversation with the Red Planet fell to sophomoric jokes, requests for “hot pics” of Mars and a probably inappropriate emoji.

Still, with market values low, oil prices low and A&D activity scarce, the oil industry could use an Elon Musk now and then. “No bucks, no Buck Rogers,” astronauts in the film, “The Right Stuff” say.

As of last year, Musk and SpaceX reported raising $2 billion in securities offerings, according to regulatory filings. To build spaceships.

Perhaps oil and gas can’t compete with space exploration. But now and then, it could take its squabbles outside.

Darren Barbee can be reached at dbarbee@hartenergy.com.