When candidate Donald Trump arrived in Pittsburgh at the Shale Insight conference in 2016, he arrived with a message for the gathered shale executives: I will roll back regulation, especially environmental regulation, and you — your industry — will thrive like you were never able to under Obama.
“I’m going to lift the restrictions on American energy,” he promised the crowd, “and allow this wealth to pour into our communities, including right here in the state of Pennsylvania that we love.”
“Oh, you will like me so much,” he added.
Shale Stocks Fell Sharply Over Last Three Years
On a little scrutiny, Trump’s proposal for the industry in 2016 may have seemed built on a bedrock of questionable understanding of how the shale industry works — he flubbed details big and small, talked up the greatness of coal to the fuel’s main competitor in the power sector, and described the shale drilling and fracking industry as one of the most over-regulated in the country, a claim that many environmentalists would have taken issue with.
But let’s say you took Trump at his word.
If, on the day Donald Trump was inaugurated, you decided to invest in shale and you went out and bought stock in some of the top shale drilling companies in the Marcellus, would you be any richer today?
Chesapeake Energy is perhaps one of the most iconic companies in the shale industry and, at the time of Trump’s first Shale Insight visit, it was the nation’s largest natural gas producer. It started 2017 worth $6.69 a share on inauguration day. When Trump returned to Shale Insight this year, Chesapeake’s stock was worth $1.43.
To be sure, Chesapeake had been dogged by financial scandals long before Trump announced his candidacy. What about EQT, which grew from the third-ranked gas producer to the single largest producer of American gas during Trump’s time in office? A share of stock in EQT would have run you $34.22 on inauguration day. Yesterday, EQT traded at $9.62. One share of Range Resources stock would have cost you $34.54 on January 20, 2017. Yesterday, Range traded at $3.84 a share.
It’s little secret that shale drilling companies have disappointed investors again and again.
“The shale gas revolution has frankly been an unmitigated disaster for any buy-and-hold investor in the shale gas industry with very few limited exceptions,” former EQT CEO Steve Schlotterbeck told a petrochemical conference at the same convention center in Pittsburgh earlier this year. “The fact is that every time they put the drill bit to the ground, they erode the value of the billions of dollars of previous investments they have made.”
‘Shale Works,’ CEO Says, Adding That Investors Want Proof
There was little news on Wednesday that suggested a turn around was imminent for the industry. Unlike prior years, listeners would have been hard-pressed to find any mention from the assembled company leaders of excitement, profitability, growth in production, or free cash flow. Panelists instead discussed the looming liabilities from abandoned wells and unresolved pipeline disputes that have delayed projects.
The day’s strongest endorsement from within the industry came from EQT’s new CEO Toby Rice. “Speaking to the economics,” Rice said, “shale works.”
Rice, whose firm announced in September that it was laying off 23 percent of its work force, said that just one challenge remained — the proof.
“And so, what you’re seeing now with investors is that everybody wants to prove that shale works,” he said, “and so I think the ultimate sign of that is going to be the ability for a company to generate free cash flow and that is going to require you to get much greater efficiencies.”
‘You’re Much Wealthier’ After Regulation Rollbacks, Trump Tells Shale Companies
But after a day of panels and technical sessions that delved into many of the headwinds that continue to face the industry, Donald Trump arrived and the tone of the conference — if not the reality the industry must face — shifted dramatically.
“You’re much happier — I was here a few years ago, you’re much happier now,” Donald Trump declared as he kicked off his hour-long speech. “And you’re much wealthier.”
Trump made little reference to the news dominating headlines nationwide about his presidency — the ongoing impeachment inquiry — except in a brief mention of Republican Mitt Romney, whose loyalty he questioned, and a quick riff on “witch hunts.”
“I have witch hunts every week,” he said. “I say, ‘what’s the witch hunt this week?’”
Instead, Trump focused his talk on telling the story of shale as a success story, one built on the administration’s support and regulatory rollbacks.
“Today I’m proud to declare that I delivered on every single promise I made to this conference three years ago and much, much more,” he said to a standing ovation from the crowd, listing rollbacks of rules designed to protect streams from pollution to his announced intention to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Accord.
Trump described a policy vision for the entire country that puts fossil fuel production front and center.
“With American energy once again powering our prosperity, the United States has the hottest economy, recognized by everybody anywhere on Earth,” Trump added. “These leaders from other countries, prime ministers, presidents, kings, queens, and dictators — they just don’t want to be known as a dictator — actually, some do — but they don’t want to be known as a dictator, they come in and they say, ‘Mr. President, we’d like to congratulate you on the economy.’”
The economic situation faced by many Pennsylvanians outside the shale executive conference, however, was described by some worker advocates very differently.
“President Trump comes to Pittsburgh and says he stands with our workers, then goes back to Washington and proves the opposite with his policies,” Allegheny County Labor Council president Darrin Kelly said in a statement. “He said he stood for working people, then cut taxes for corporations. He promised the best health care for everyone, then tried to take health care away from millions. He said union workers should vote for him, then attacked union rights and weakened workplace safety protections.”
‘Don’t Pay Attention,’ Trump Tells Execs as Crowd Members Boo Methane Rollbacks
Trump arrived inside Shale Insight this year with an entourage that included current and former Cabinet members and Pennsylvania politicians, some of whom he called out to by name. He spoke from a podium behind which were arranged people wearing hardhats and MAGA caps. Behind the reserved tables for paying conference attendees, organizers established a standing-room only corridor where a couple hundred members of the public were allowed to watch and cheer.
The talk was interrupted once by objections from the crowd, which came as Trump described rollbacks for rules meant to curb climate-changing pollution.
“We are streamlining the EPA’s oil and gas methane rule — don’t pay attention. Don’t pay attention,” Trump said as boos and shouting broke out in the standing-room section. “Saving energy producers millions of dollars in compliance costs while maintaining sterling environmental standards like never before.”
Trump then interrupted himself again to say of the protesters, “yeah, don’t hurt ’em, don’t hurt ‘em,” to laughter from the executive section. “They don’t know they’re dealing with very tough people in this room,” he said, turning his back momentarily to the crowd.
Later in his speech, Trump brought three selected individuals up to the podium, including Bonnie Moore, described as a Washington County, Pennsylvania farmer, who told the crowd, “After this administration unleashed regulations on the oil and gas industry, our area boomed. We had job growth, supply-chain growth, and the landowners were compensated for allowing the energy companies to use their properties.”
“A thriving energy industry not only benefits hardworking Americans like Andrea and Rawley and Bonnie, who live in shale country; it’s also an enormous benefit to citizens all across our country, all across our land,” Trump said, as Moore was ushered back from the podium.
“But despite these terrific benefits, many politicians in our country are targeting your industry and your jobs for, literally, total destruction,” he continued. “Whether you like it or not, that’s where they’re going. I don’t know; Is it on purpose? Is it stupidity? Is it through evil?”
There is, of course, another set of relevant facts that went virtually unmentioned during Trump’s speech: the facts related to climate change and the fossil fuel industry’s role in causing the climate to change. That topic, in fact, was central to the recent Town Hall where some Democratic primary candidates discussed their opposition to fracking.
Those gathered inside Shale Insight had spent the day discussing some of the very facts that Trump elided, and how regulators — not just at the federal level, but at the state and local, would respond to them.
As the accolades piled on while the reasons for concern dropped out of discussion, the standing ovations from the gathered executives grew less frequent and Trump began to wind down his talk.
“You are the ones who are restoring our strength. You are the ones renewing our spirit. And you are the ones who are making America greater than it has ever been before. And it’s not even close,” Trump told the crowd as he prepared to leave the stage. “And congratulations to all of you, our great energy people, for what you’ve been able to accomplish — especially in the last three years.”
“Thank you,” Trump said. “God bless you. And God bless America.”
And he walked out as the shale industry representatives offered up another round of wordless cheers.
UPDATED: This piece has been updated on October 24, 2109.
Main image: President Donald Trump speaking in Pittsburgh at the Shale Insight conference.