With the massive adoration and tributes pouring in on local corporate and social media outlets to honor the late Aubrey McClendon and his contributions to the so-called Oklahoma City renaissance, I don’t think it’s too early to ask some basic, realistic questions.
— Louise Story (@louisestory) March 3, 2016
Was the great Oklahoma City renaissance, an exaggerated term for at least some of us who live here and an absolutely absurd term for the city’s impoverished people without decent medical access, funded at least partially by a crook’s money?
Are those organizations which gladly accepted money from McClendon, who was indicted Tuesday on rigging prices on oil and gas leases, willing to give that money back to make restitution to the people the local wildcatter baron is alleged to have ripped off along with, according to a recent news report, his former partner Tom Ward, if the allegations are true? Here is a partial list of organizations, according to various reports, that took McClendon’s money: The Lyric Theatre, Ballet Oklahoma, Oklahoma Museum of Art, Arts Council of Oklahoma City, the Oklahoma Heritage Foundation and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. What about the over-hyped Boathouse District with which McClendon was heavily involved? Then there’s the Boys and Girls Club of OKC, one of McClendon’s donees I appreciate the most. Despite these contributions, McClendon still had plenty of money left over to live a life with his family few of us can even comprehend.
Will those organizations at least stop their McClendon tributes and face the possibility the money they received was heavily tainted by corruption?
Bloomberg Business says former Sandridge CEO was McClendon co-conspirator: https://t.co/jJu4noa46j
— Phil Cross (@philsnews) March 3, 2016
Will those prominent people who served on Chesapeake’s Board of Directors, which included Oklahoma State University President Burns Hargis, during McClendon’s tenure and during the time period of the allegations, if proven, return all their compensation to those people allegedly ripped off by McClendon or at least turn the money over to charities that help the poor?
How complicit were the corporate media outlets here, primarily The Oklahoman, in not digging out and telling the real story of Chesapeake or ignoring the obvious as the fossil fuel glut devastated the local economy because they craved advertising dollars and wanted to promote extremist and reductionist political views that have ultimately produced a leading Republican presidential candidate like the fanatical Donald Trump? (As an aside, be wary of every word published in The Oklahoman about the local energy industry. You can’t even trust normally honest and longtime sportswriter Berry Tramel on this issue, and that’s a shame.)
— NewsOK (@NewsOK) March 3, 2016
Is there something peculiarly rotten in the local fossil fuel industry dating back to the state’s first oil gusher and boom, from greed leading to criminal charges to poor fiscal “boom and bust” management that enriches then destroys the local economy and causes the displacement of lives to the latest development of earthquakes damaging our homes to its contribution to the carbon emissions that lead to manmade global warming destroying our planet?
I’ll answer that last question: I believe there is, and it needs to be changed. The change needs to be based on tighter regulations and government oversight of the energy industry and changing the mindset of people here. I wish I could have more hope this could happen here.
My condolences go out to McClendon’s family, but these are questions that need to be answered as quickly as possible so we don’t repeat the past. Turning McClendon into a demigod is the last thing that needs to happen right now in the Oklahoma City area and the state, which faces declining tax revenues because of the fossil fuel glut created by McClendon and the entire energy industry, dominated now by hydraulic fracturing or fracking.
McClendon, 56, founder and former CEO of Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy, died in a single-car accident Wednesday morning, just a day after getting indicted by the U.S. Justice Department for rigging the prices for oil and gas leases in northwestern Oklahoma from 2007 to 2012. That’s a long time of alleged corruption. McClendon had denied any wrongdoing. McClendon had been under intense scrutiny for his overall business practices right before and after he left the company in 2013. Reuters made the case about the “leveraged and lavish life of Aubrey McClendon” way back in 2012.
The early speculation is that McClendon intentionally drove his vehicle into a bridge embankment in northeastern Oklahoma City at a high rate of speed and was killed in a fiery crash. But we’ll see what the investigation reveals. Conspiracy theories are already floating around social media and office water coolers about the wreck. One is that he staged his own death, and that wasn’t him behind the wheel. Another is that he was run off the road somehow because he knew too much and could implicate other people in the case. I’m not going to get into the suicide speculation or dignify the conspiracy theories. Maybe, it was just an untimely accident.
Meanwhile, it was revealed Thursday by at least one corporate media outlet that Ward, former CEO of Sandridge Energy who left that company in 2013, allegedly conspired with McClendon in the lease rigging. Ward and McClendon founded Chesapeake in 1989. Ward later left Chesapeake to form Sandridge Energy in 2006. The time frame is important. A federal civil lawsuit has been filed in the case as well.
Speculation about the car crash and Sandridge’s alleged involvement with McClendon over allegedly rigging lease prices will get resolved and made public eventually, but there are more important arguments to make as the state struggles to fund schools and deliver a modicum of health care to the poor.
Some of those arguments are, of course, embedded in the questions I first posed in this post, which include better government oversight of the country’s energy industry.
But I will be more specific and direct.
Stop the McClendon worship. The vast majority of American people who are multi-millionaires and billionaires give money to charities and their pet projects. This is how they buy loyalty and basic indifference to suspect business practices and, in some cases, criminal activity. It’s an Oklahoma and very much overall old American story. It’s a way to ensure deep income disparity and worship of the wealthy. It’s the American form of aristocracy. It’s a way to buy off the intelligentsia from riling up the masses. Note McClendon’s donations, for example, to what passes as the high arts in Oklahoma City. The wealthy McClendon was absolutely nothing special in this regard. He was rich. That’s what made him so special to so many people. That’s his legacy. He was rich. If he wasn’t rich, I wouldn’t even be writing this or you wouldn’t even be reading this. I assume he was genuinely likable and lovable to some people, especially his family and close friends. A lot of people, of course, are likable and lovable. But I get physically squeamish reading the tributes about McClendon’s life when I think of all the Oklahoma teachers, social workers, first-responders and healthcare providers and others I’m not intentionally leaving out who have devoted their lives and careers to serving others while getting paid less in their entire lives than a pittance of what McClendon made in one year and spent on his lavish lifestyle during his glory years. McClendon, along with Ward, once donated more than $1 million to an organization dedicated to stopping sex-same marriage. What a visionary.
Stop arguing how important the oil and gas industry is to Oklahoma. The industry has done as much harm as good here. It looks as if we’re getting ready to go through another 1980s-era bust, and families are going to suffer miserably. It could be even worse than the 1980s. It would be much better to grow and expand the economy sensibly and slowly with a diversity of businesses. We can expand our renewable energy industry and the technology sector, but to do the latter we need to provide more funding for education. The huge tax breaks given to the fossil-fuel energy sector and the income tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy here recently make sure we can’t do that in the foreseeable future. Many Republican Oklahoma politicians, from Gov. Mary Fallin to Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe obviously do the political footwork for the oil and gas industry because of campaign contributions.They’re also not strong supporters of a strong public education system, the real answer to the myriad of social and economic problems facing the state right now.
Stop exaggerating the importance of the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball team here, which is the major part of the Oklahoma City renaissance myth. I bring this up because McClendon, of course, was an investor and a big fan. By all means enjoy the fast pace of NBA basketball and the slam dunks of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, just like McClendon did, but The Thunder team doesn’t make Oklahoma City a big-league place. It makes a relatively few people rich while we pay our teachers just about the lowest of all teachers in the nation. I predict the team will get sold soon and probably to out-of-state owners as high-dollar ticket sales decline. It seems like a good time to sell. The current ownership, led by Clayton Bennett, have to know that. Bennett doesn’t seem to me to be a wildcatter in spirit like McClendon. I bet Durant and Westbrook will play for just about any city’s team willing to pay them even more millions of dollars to do so. I don’t blame them. I bet they’ll love the fans of their next city just as much as they love their fans here.
As I posted earlier, the Aubrey McClendon story marks an important era in our state’s historical story revolving around the demise and folly of massive, poorly regulated fracking, much like the collapse of Penn Square Bank because of corrupt energy-related loans and the ensuing criminal charges marked the 1980s. I still feel the sadness of that era in my memory bones as I think about the state’s brain drain, the economic stagnation and the empty office buildings. Get ready. It’s on its way again. I hate to be this blatantly honest on some level, but if you’re in a career-driven space in your life looking to move up the ladder it might be wise for you to now look for job opportunities outside of Oklahoma, and this especially applies to educators.
McClendon’s family and real friends deserve our condolences at this point in the tragic saga, nothing more, nothing less.
In the end, McClendon simply wasn’t the great philanthropical and mythical figure so many people crave him to be because they took his money and want to feel good about it. Have at it if you must qualify it. But here’s how I see it: At the very best, McClendon helped to create many really good-paying jobs here for a couple of decades or so in an environmentally unsound industry that’s damaging the planet by accelerating global warming before he helped to ruin the Oklahoma economy as he lived it up large as romantic wildcatters tend to do. He had himself a good ride as he took the bull by the horns, as any decent Okie might put it. Most of us got left with the tail end of the bull.
At the worst, he was a simple crook, nothing more, nothing less.