Encana tipped off Chesapeake to land plans in Michigan, e-mails show

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla., Wed Jul 11, 2012 – As Chesapeake Energy Corp and Encana Corp. face antitrust investigations, emails reviewed by Reuters indicate that top executives of the two rivals shared sensitive information that gave Chesapeake the upper hand in deals with Michigan land owners.
The emails show the competitors traded information about whether Encana was halting new land leasing in Michigan in 2010, and the information prompted Chesapeake to dramatically change its leasing strategy in subsequent weeks and helped send Michigan land prices tumbling from record highs.
In the days after learning that Encana was paring back, Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon ordered Chesapeake to renegotiate or delay closing on at least 10 deals that his company was negotiating with major land lease holders in Michigan, documents reviewed by Reuters show.
Antitrust experts said such discussions could add fodder to probes by the Justice Department and Michigan authorities, who are exploring whether the two companies violated state or federal laws by discussing how to suppress land prices in the state.
They said the emails raise collusion concerns, given that two direct competitors appear to have exchanged critical data. “Information exchange” is not explicitly illegal under U.S. antitrust law, unlike bid-rigging and price-fixing. But it has been found by courts to be anti-competitive when the sharing is done privately, doesn’t promote efficiency and involves information of value to customers – in this case, Michigan land owners.
“It’s highly suspect,” said Maurice Stucke, a former antitrust attorney with the Department of Justice. Said Harry First, another former Justice Department antitrust attorney: “Asking your competitor whether they are going to stop leasing in, or exit, the Michigan market is an offer to collude.”

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