Smaller, slower and more profitable. These are the watchwords for Chesapeake Energy Corp. as it emerges from bankruptcy. Free of the colossal liabilities that sank it as the pandemic slashed global energy demand last year, the company has also abandoned the growth-at-all-costs strategy that made it a pioneer of the shale revolution—and poster child of the sector’s debt-fueled excess.
Now, promise shale executives, a more resilient industry is emerging from the ashes that aims to woo investors. Like the reincarnated Chesapeake, it will be smaller—some analysts believe the sector will be reduced to just 10 dominant shale producers. Production increases will be modest, and financed from cash flow. And activity will focus on fewer prolific shale fields, mainly in Texas. Oil operators that feared new U.S. president Joe Biden’s ambition to launch a green energy revolution would stymie the industry’s drilling and slow production growth, now promise to do both themselves.
Can the industry’s new pitch be trusted? Some investors remain skeptical, remembering how past promises of capital discipline crumbled when oil prices rose. “Give an oilman a dollar and he’ll drill a well,” runs the old industry adage. In an era when environmental concerns are already deterring investment in fossil fuels, and long-term growth in oil demand is no longer assured, shale executives know they cannot risk breaking more promises.