Old face behind new company

LISBON – A start-up company founded by former Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon is showing an interest in the southern part of Columbiana County.

McClendon parted ways with the natural gas giant earlier this year and founded American Energy Partners and two other companies.

East Liverpool attorney David Tobin said he has recently negotiated oil and gas leases for Great River Energy, a new oil and gas development company formed through a partnership between American Energy and Texas firm Orange Energy Consultants.

Tobin works out of the Charles Payne law offices in East Liverpool and provided the Morning Journal with a copy of an email sent to him in August by Scott Beckman, attorney and managing partner of Orange Energy.

Beckman said in the correspondence that American Energy and Great River Energy “are working together in the southern Utica shale play and intend to acquire acreage and drilling wells in the very near future.”

The email was in response to Tobin’s inquiry about Great River’s financial backing, so he could provide “comfort” to his Columbiana County clients about its ability to fund signing bonuses.

Tobin said in the email his clients were “excited about the opportunity to lease with Great River.”

The company is based in Fort Worth, Texas, but now has an office in North Canton.

The Huffington Post reported in late August American Energy had raised $1 billion in capital and purchased more than 72,000 acres in five Ohio counties.

The company began running advertisements in the Morning Journal months ago seeking oil and gas leases in Jefferson, Harrison, Guernsey, Noble, Belmont and Monroe counties.

It is reportedly focusing on those counties and portions of Columbiana and Carroll counties in the Utica shale play not already claimed by Chesapeake.

Tobin said a “number of lawyers” in the southern part of the county are negotiating leases with McClendon-associated companies.

The businessman parted ways with Chesapeake after shareholders in 2012 criticized the way he was running the company, claiming he was focusing more on feathering his own nest than shareholder dividends and company profits.

On Monday, it was announced McClendon has started yet another company, called American Energy Utica, that will also focus on the Southern Utica shale.

CNBC reported the company will be buying and developing land in the shale area that is rich in natural gas and natural gas liquids, and it will be closing on the purchase of 80,000 acres in three separate transactions. The company reportedly hopes to start the production process soon and have 12 rigs operating in two to three years.

Articles did not provide any mention of a connection with American Energy Partners.

Meanwhile, Tobin said the majority of leasing activity he has seen recently in the southern part of the county is for Great River.

“Chesapeake still has an office here and are doing a little bit of leasing here and there for a property in a unit or something, but right now Great River seems to be the only one doing a lot of leasing here,” he said.

Tobin said companies are mostly focusing on Madison, Washington, Yellow Creek and St. Clair townships.

Youngstown attorney Alan Wenger, who also negotiates leases for county residents, said Chesapeake secured the most leases early on during the “craze” three years ago.

He serves as chair of the oil and gas law practice group for Harrington Hoppe and Mitchell. The firm has offices in Youngstown, Warren and Salem.

He said “everything changed with Chesapeake” within the last month to a year, and the company is now concentrating on the southern part of the county.

“They have changed their focus almost completely on Columbiana County and transferred a lot of northern Columbiana County leaseholds to Hilcorp Energy,” he said.

The company transferred more than 1,000 of its leases to Hilcorp earlier this year and Hilcorp established an office in the city of Columbiana to have a more hands-on role in the area.

A phone call to Hilcorp was referred to spokesman Justin Furnace Friday, and a message left with him was not returned this week.

With the drop-off in leasing to the north, Wenger said landowners who have property needed by a company to complete a unit have some leverage to negotiate a decent lease agreement.

“It is much slower than it was a year ago, and the leasing activity for new leases is generally confined to situations where drilling companies are trying to form units and they are following through with their requirements under ODNR (Ohio Department of Natural Resources) regulations to try and negotiate leases with unleased properties,” he said.

He isn’t aware of any standard going rates for leases at this time and believes companies will “try to go as cheap as they can go” right now, with the exception of land in Belmont, Harrison and surrounding counties, he said.

He added companies are now “picking and choosing” the properties that make sense to what they are developing and that while offers are not reaping as much as they were for some landowners three years ago an increase in natural gas prices could be favorable.

“Some of these areas may become very attractive again,” he said.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported natural gas prices decreased at all trading locations Sept. 18-25. The prices fell between 5 and 9 percent.

That leasing has slowed some is evident by the lack of some municipalities receiving favorable offers over the last year or two.

East Palestine is on the market for a lease but has not received a favorable offer yet, although BP Oil was interested last year, before the village opted to negotiate through Salem-based Buckeye Mineral Development over Village Solicitor Shirley Smith, who had already met with BP representatives.

Tobin said BP was one of the “big” companies that came through the county offering leases and secured several in Yellow Creek, Madison and Washington townships. As of January they are no longer leasing in Columbiana County, he said.

Wenger is currently representing the city of Columbiana in negotiations for its municipal land. City Manager Lance Willard said there have been lease offers, but they have not signed with anyone yet.

He and Wenger did not wish to disclose any other details of those negotiations.

Lisbon is also still looking to sell its municipal land for exploration and had a lease offer at one point, but the company backed out. Village Solicitor Virginia Barborak has recommended waiting until prices go back up.

Salineville only recently leased 17 acres in Woodland Cemetery along state Route 644 for roughly $3,000 per acre -down from the $5,000 per acre being offered to landowners two to three years ago.