Chesapeake Energy Corp. is preparing a potential bankruptcy filing that could hand control of one of the leading lights of the U.S. shale revolution to senior lenders, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The dwindling options for a powerhouse that once rivaled Exxon Mobil Corp. for title of king of American natural gas comes after Chief Executive Officer Doug Lawler’s 7-year effort to untangle the financial and legal legacies of Chesapeake’s late founder, Aubrey McClendon. Lawler’s denouement, in turn, would signal the deep peril facing a shale industry largely built according to McClendon’s blueprint for Chesapeake: amassing incredible debts to pursue aggressive drilling programs that ultimately unearthed too little treasure to reward investors.

Gordon Pennoyer, a spokesman for Chesapeake, declined to comment. The talks with lenders come almost seven years to the date that Lawler assumed the helm at the Oklahoma City-based company at the behest of Carl Icahn and O. Mason Hawkins, at the time two of the driller’s biggest investors.