Aubrey McClendon, a billionaire oilman who helped launch the U.S. shale energy revolution, smashed his SUV into a bridge embankment Wednesday morning and died a fiery death.
The fatal crash in Oklahoma City came less than a day after McClendon, 56, was charged with rigging bids for oil and natural gas leases.
McClendon also owned part of the Oklahoma City Thunder and was instrumental in bringing that National Basketball Association franchise to Oklahoma City. He also had owned a stake in SolutionsBank of Overland Park, which failed in 2009 under the weight of troubled real estate loans.
Wednesday morning, he drove his 2013 Chevrolet Tahoe into the embankment in northeast Oklahoma City “at a high rate of speed,” Police Sgt. Paco Balderrama said at a news conference. The car burst into flames before responders could pull McClendon’s body from the vehicle, Balderrama said.
“He pretty much drove straight into the wall,” Balderrama said. “The information out there at the scene is that … there was plenty of opportunity for him to correct and get back on the roadway, and that didn’t occur.”
McClendon’s rise in the North American energy arena was rapid. He built Chesapeake Energy Corp. from modest beginnings to a vast energy empire, thanks to his championing of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling at a time when larger, more established players were skeptical of shale’s potential. At its height in June 2008, Chesapeake was valued at $35.6 billion.
McClendon’s fall from grace was just as swift. The gas boom he helped create caused prices to crater, reducing the company’s value by more than half. A shareholder revolt by Carl Icahn and Southeastern Asset Management Inc.’s O. Mason Hawkins cost the CEO his annual bonus and the chairmanship in 2012, and McClendon agreed to resign in January 2013.
He was charged Tuesday by a federal grand jury in connection with orchestrating a scheme between two “large oil and gas companies” to not bid against each other for leases in northwest Oklahoma from December 2007 to March 2012, the Justice Department said in a statement.
The antitrust law McClendon was accused of violating, the Sherman Act, carried a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and a $1 million fine for individuals, according to the Justice Department statement.
McClendon, whose new venture, American Energy Partners, allegedly was one of the conspiring companies, on Tuesday night called the charge “wrong and unprecedented” and vowed to fight it. The next morning he was dead.
T. Boone Pickens, chairman of BP Capital LLC, said: “I’ve known Aubrey McClendon for nearly 25 years. He was a major player in leading the stunning energy renaissance in America. He was charismatic and a true American entrepreneur. No individual is without flaws, but his impact on American energy will be long-lasting.”