by Max Brantley
“I’d rather have the gas to myself with no one following,” Steven Mueller, Southwestern’s chief executive, said last month as he watched his rig hands pull pipe and mud from a new natural gas well here in northern Arkansas.
Mr. Mueller hardly needs to look back. With the price of natural gas plunging along with oil in recent weeks, virtually no one is following his lead outside of Southwestern. Twelve of the 13 rigs still drilling among the chicken farms and cattle ranches are Southwestern’s. The 45 other rigs — once operated by giants like Chesapeake Energy, BHP Billiton and Exxon Mobil’s XTO Energy a few years ago, when natural gas prices were more than twice as high — are gone.
But not Southwestern Energy, a Houston-based company that has risen from being the nation’s 40th to become the fourth-largest producer of natural gas. Southwestern’s discovery of the Fayetteville shale field a decade ago, and its quiet leasing of the heart of the field at bargain prices, made the company a power. Since 2007, Southwestern’s Fayetteville production has risen 800 percent and its reserves are up 570 percent. It still drills more than 30 new wells every month here.
Mr. Mueller and Southwestern Energy also stand apart when it comes to the environment. In September, Southwestern was the only American firm to join five European, Asian and Latin American oil and gas companies that signed on to a voluntary United Nations-backed program to monitor and disclose methane emissions, as well as invest in technologies to control the greenhouse gas.
Working with the Environmental Defense Fund, Southwestern has offered data about emissions from its operations and has organized other domestic companies to commit to reduce methane emissions.