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Aubrey McClendon Launches His Post-Chesapeake Comeback

By Daniel Gilbert Wildcatter Aubrey McClendon has been all but absent from the public eye since his ouster as chief executive of Chesapeake Energy Corp. last year. Now he is easing back into the spotlight. Mr. McClendon, whose flair made him a fixture at the energy industry's marquee events, is working feverishly to build a new energy empire, raising $10 billion in the last nine months for his American Energy Partners LP. On Wednesday, he joined the head of the Environmental Protection Agency and the governor of Delaware at a Goldman Sachs energy conference in Manhattan. The executive's appearance at the event marked a re-emergence after a quiet period. Just over a year ago, Mr. McClendon was shown the door at Chesapeake, the company he co-founded and built into the nation's second-biggest natural-gas producer, behind Exxon Mobil Corp. Regarded by many as a visionary early to grasp the potential of American shale, Mr. McClendon eventually lost favor with Chesapeake's largest shareholders because of his aggressive spending, appetite for risk and mingling his personal finances with the company's drilling. Mr. McClendon has kicked off his second act with characteristic speed and billion-dollar purchases, setting up shop less than a mile from Chesapeake's headquarters in Oklahoma City. American Energy Partners on Monday said it had snapped up oil and gas holdings from West Virginia to West Texas for $4.25 billion: about $1 billion shy of Chesapeake's capital-spending budget for this year. "I represent an industry which today is the largest producer of natural gas in the world," a low-key Mr. McClendon said at Wednesday's conference. Wearing a bright-pink necktie, his long white hair tucked behind his ears, he held forth on a favorite subject: the economic and environmental benefits of natural gas. The U.S. drilling boom has catapulted the country ahead of Russia on the natural-gas leaderboard, thanks in part to the prowess of companies like Chesapeake at wringing the fuel from shale-rock formations through hydraulic fracturing and other techniques. Mr. McClendon acknowledged that the industry has made mistakes, including poor construction that led to leaky wells. But he argued against the more muscular regulation that is under consideration as the EPA and some states study the environmental impacts of fracking. "We have such powerful internal motivation to get things right that we can fix things on the fly pretty quickly without, frankly, heavy-handed approaches to our problems," he said. American Energy Partners is bulking up in some of the areas that Chesapeake pioneered. But this time around, Mr. McClendon is running five closely held affiliates, each focused on drilling in distinct locations. The approach offers an appeal similar to fantasy baseball, allowing investors to bet on their favorite oil and gas fields, from Ohio's rust belt to the red-hot Permian Basin in Texas. For now, the various units are owned by a few big investors each, with investment firm Energy & Minerals Group in Houston putting up the most cash. Mr. McClendon hasn't made clear whether he intends to take American Energy or any of its affiliates public. The unit focused in Ohio, American Energy--Utica LLC, in April sold debt that would convert into shares with a public offering. The deal implied a value of $5 billion for the venture. For now, American Energy's financing arrangements aren't public. Some analysts question whether the terms are as onerous as deals Chesapeake struck under Mr. McClendon, which raised cash but saddled the company with a huge debt load and expensive requirements to drill. The new company's frenzied pace of spending on oil and gas leases has prompted some analysts to question whether the company is moving too quickly. "Are you optimizing what you hold? That's the name of the game right now," said Mark Hanson, a Morningstar Inc. analyst. The company and Mr. McClendon declined to comment for this article. Mr. McClendon hasn't lost his appetite for complexity. In addition to American Energy Partners, he is managing operations for a separate energy outfit with a similar name: American Energy Capital Partners LP. The company is backed by real-estate investors who have hired Mr. McClendon to acquire interests in oil and gas properties. Mr. McClendon receives a percentage of such deals, including purchases from companies he runs. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in March sought expanded disclosures from American Energy Capital Partners about potential conflicts of interest. The regulator also demanded that the firm delete a passage from Mr. McClendon's biography that referred to his "long history as a successful manager." "The biography should be limited to factual information, not evaluative statements," the SEC wrote in March. The company made the change. Write to Daniel Gilbert at daniel.gilbert@wsj.com Subscribe to WSJ: http://online.wsj.com?mod=djnwires

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