Last month, I declared the Eagle Ford shale the hottest unconventional play of 2010. With major purchases by the likes of Williams (NYSE: WMB ) and Hess, the Bakken is arguably just as bustling, but that Rockies oil play is more mature. The Eagle Ford only entered the scene in late 2008, with the discovery of the Hawkville field by Petrohawk Energy (NYSE: HK ) .
Whereas 2009 was a year for early stage tinkering, 2010 has brought an explosion of activity in this South Texas treasure trove. The Eagle Ford rig count reached 49 in April, and hit 84 by early August -- exceeding the number working in the Barnett shale.
The party's only getting started. Halliburton projects that the rig count will exceed 200 by the end of next year, as ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) and other operators continue to ramp up activity. Conoco says it is increasing its Eagle Ford spending to $1 billion to $1.5 billion in 2011, from $300 million this year.
Companies like EOG Resources (NYSE: EOG ) have gotten pretty well set with their acreage positions by this point, but deals continue to flow. Marathon Oil (NYSE: MRO ) entered the play this week, with the option to purchase up to 75,000 net acres at a total cost of $209 million. Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) , meanwhile, padded its already significant acreage position with the $200 million purchase of a little over 23,000 net acres in McMullen County. Swift Energy has a fairly concentrated acreage position in this county, which hosts part of the Hawkville field.
Chesapeake obviously paid considerably more for its new leasehold than Marathon, but the surrounding activity has arguably reduced the risk for these acres. We've seen companies like Statoil (NYSE: STO ) pay quite a bit more, so shareholders shouldn't be shocked by the price tag. At least one analyst is grumbling about Chesapeake's "profligate" ways today, however, downgrading the stock to "sell."
If this were a major purchase, I would be more concerned about Chesapeake overpaying. What I find, though, is that the company tends to acquire vast swaths of undeveloped land on the cheap, and farm it out to international partners with deep pockets, like CNOOC, at multiples of that acquisition price. As long as the company saves its higher-priced acquisitions for small "tuck-ins" like today's purchase, and keeps debt levels at around 40% of total capital or lower, the business model doesn't bother me.