Gas Baron Killed In Exploding Car, One Day After US Authorities Charge Him Over Price Fixing

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American energy baron Aubrey McClendon has died in a fiery car crash the day after the United States Department of Justice charged him over his business dealings in Oklahoma, accusing the former Chesapeake Energy boss of “orchestrating a conspiracy”.

McClendon was a prominent figure in the aggressive expansion of the US shale gas and fracking industry, renowned amongst his peers for his early adoption of the controversial ‘fracking’ technique. He was also seeking to develop the gas industry in the Northern Territory (see below).

But yesterday his reputation took a battering when the Department of Justice announced he had been charged by a federal grand jury.

“[McClendon] orchestrated a conspiracy between two large oil and gas companies to not bid against each other for the purchase of certain oil and natural gas leases in northwest Oklahoma,” the Department of Justice alleged.

Assistant Attorney General Bill Baer said McClendon had conspired to “suppress prices” paid for the rights to produce oil and gas on certain lands. “Executives who abuse their positions as leaders of major corporations to organise criminal activity must be held accountable for their actions,” Baer said.

McClendon was facing up to 10 years in prison.

This morning, Oklahoma City Police Department Captain Paco Balderrama confirmed McClendon was “engulfed in flames” when he crashed his 2013 Chevy Tahoe.

“He went left of centre, travelling at a high rate of speed, and collided with the west embankment wall of the overpass,” Balderrama said.

“He pretty much drove straight into the wall… there was plenty of opportunity for him to correct or get back on the roadway, and that didn’t occur. He went straight into the embankment and collided into it.

“The closest speed limit there is 40 miles an hour. He was going well above that.

A natural gas flare, in Oregon, US. (IMAGE: Tim Evanson, Flickr)
A natural gas flare, in Oregon, US. (IMAGE: Tim Evanson, Flickr)

“It’s going to take our investigators approximately one or two weeks to completely finish the investigation and recreate the accident, but at this point in time it it appears pretty cut and dried what exactly happened,” he said.

In the wake of his indictment yesterday, McClendon had launched a vigorous defence against the Department of Justice’s “unprecedented” charges. “I have been singled out as the only person in the oil and gas industry in over 110 years since the Sherman Act became law to have been accused of this crime in relation to joint bidding on leasehold,” McClendon said.

“A charge is one thing. Proving the case is another,” his lawyers said in a statement. “Starting today, Aubrey gets his day in court where we will show that this prosecutorial overreach was completely unjustified.”

The gas baron’s company is currently embroiled in a separate court case in Queensland over a ‘farm-out’ agreement with Armour Energy. It involved McClendon’s company – American Energy Partners, formed after he departed Chesepeake under a cloud – bankrolling Armour’s gas projects in the Northern Territory.

It is one of a number of deals covering at least 55 million acres that McClendon’s company had entered into ahead of an anticipated gas fracking boom in the Top End. The iconic oil and gas producer was well known for his ‘land grab’ strategy – buying up the rights to develop gas fields across vast tracts of untapped land – and Australian activists are alarmed that the same tactic appears to be being played out in the Northern Territory.

Adam Giles’ Top End government has aggressively sought to establish a gas industry in the Territory, and is currently developing a regulatory system to manage production at gas fields which are expected to be connected with east coast export hubs and markets by a new pipeline.

It is unclear whether McClendon’s demise may affect the operations of American Energy Partners.

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Thom Mitchell

Thom Mitchell is New Matilda's Environment Reporter.

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