Sunday, May 20, 2007

Big Money Abhors a Vacuum--Wildcatters Enter the New Oil Rush

Big oil companies have reduced their oil exploration efforts since the 1980s. That means there is big money to be made in finding new oil fields--and the small wildcatters are the ones who are going to be cashing in. Venture capital is beginning to find the wildcatters with the best chances of hitting crude.
The American oil patch, once left to languish during an extended period of low oil prices, is on the rebound. Wildcatters like Mr. Bryant are ready to pounce. With oil prices now hovering around $60 a barrel — three times higher than they were throughout the 1990s — the industry is expanding at a pace last seen decades ago.

“The oil industry has changed dramatically in the last 20 years,” Mr. Bryant says. “Barriers to entry have dropped significantly. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in the business 100 years or 100 days.”

Easily available capital and technology, once the preserve of traditional oil companies, are reordering the business. Investors are lining up to finance energy projects while leaps in computing power, imaging technology and collaborative online networks now allow the smallest entities to compete on an equal footing with the biggest players.

“There’s a lot of money out there looking for opportunities,” said John Schaeffer, the head of the oil and gas unit at GE Energy Financial Services. “It seems like everyone wants to own an oil well now.”

...Instead of looking for new petroleum sources, the big oil companies now spend more money on strategic and financial maneuvers like acquisitions and share buybacks, according to analysts. Many have also bolstered dividend payments in order to please their shareholders. A decade ago, oil companies spent $2 on exploration for every $1 spent on acquisitions; today, it’s the other way around. Exploration, which once took a place of pride among major oil companies, now takes a back seat.

But analysts warn that the industry should be expanding exploration, because much more energy will be needed in coming years. According to the International Energy Agency, the world will be consuming 115 million barrels of oil a day by 2030, up from 85 million today.

“It’s hard to explain why exploration isn’t getting more attention,” Mr. Smith said. Oil companies, he said, “have become more risk-averse.”

For whatever reasons Big Oil is forgoing exploration, that reluctance has opened a door to entrepreneurs like Mr. Bryant. Cobalt, taking advantage of the lush financing available to energy start-ups, has secured $600 million from investors like Goldman Sachs and Carlyle/Riverstone, a private equity firm. It is about to secure an additional $600 million to $900 million from its investors.

....Finding, developing and operating costs in the Gulf of Mexico run below $20 a barrel. With oil prices at $65 a barrel, if the company finds a field that flows at 50,000 barrels a day, it can potentially earn more than $2 million a day — or $800 million a year — from a single field. “The whole game is to put a string of those together,” Mr. Bryant says.

....Cobalt is looking for oil reserves ranging from 100 million to 300 million barrels. While a big discovery can instantly earn the company billions, there is no guarantee that the company will find oil at all. “How are you successful in oil and gas exploration? It doesn’t need a whole committee,” said Mike Lentini, a 49-year-old geologist who spent 25 years looking for oil at Shell and recently moved to Cobalt. “If you go the consensus path, you get the average result rather than what is truly path-breaking.”

On a recent afternoon here, Mr. Byrant, who had just returned from a visit to the Middle East, said Cobalt would never be able to compete with Big Oil everywhere. But he said independent companies now had more than a fighting chance.

“Exploration has become a game of super technology,” he says. “That’s a lot different from the early days of the industry when wildcatters would just drill a well, cross their fingers and hope for the best.”

For more on the promise of new oil exploration technologies, see here, here, here, and here.

Such independent operators could not operate in most "oil countries", where corrupt government leaders hover--waiting to pounce on new finds and nationalise them to enrich their Swiss bank accounts.

Hat tip instapundit.

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