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How the Kings of Fracking Double-Crossed Their Way to Riches

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Chesapeake energyThanks to a series of shady deals with former subsidiaries—and massive cuts in royalties to unsuspecting landowners—the controversial shale gas firm is now awash in cash.

At the end of 2011, Chesapeake Energy, one of the nation’s biggest oil and gas companies, was teetering on the brink of failure.  Its legendary chief executive officer, Aubrey McClendon, was being pilloried for questionable deals, its stock price was getting hammered and the company needed to raise billions of dollars quickly.

The money could be borrowed, but only on onerous terms. Chesapeake, which had burned money on a lavish steel-and-glass office complex in Oklahoma City even while the selling price for its gas plummeted, already had too much debt.

In the months that followed, Chesapeake executed an adroit escape, raising nearly $5 billion with a previously undisclosed twist: By gouging many rural landowners out of royalty payments they were supposed to receive in exchange for allowing the company to drill for natural gas on their property.

In lawsuits in state after state, private landowners have won cases accusing the companies like Chesapeake of stiffing them on royalties they were due. Federal investigators have repeatedly identified underpayments of royalties for drilling on federal lands, including a case in which Chesapeake was fined $765,000 for “knowing or willful submission of inaccurate information” last year.

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