Big Oil Places a Big Bet on Natural Gas

It's official: The world has gone crazy for natural gas. While deal after deal is being made for stakes in onshore plays in the U.S., offshore deals halfway around the world are booming as well. It seems with every passing day, more and more gas is discovered underneath the ocean floor. One region in particular has been particularly active: East Africa.

Discovering the joy of natural gas
Big Oil has been ramping up global exploration efforts, and nowhere is that more evident than East Africa. Toward the end of last year, Eni (NYSE: E  ) announced a huge discovery off the coast of Mozambique. Last week, the company announced it had made another major find offshore of the country, bringing its total payload in the region to 30 trillion cubic feet. For comparison, that's more than three times the natural gas reserves of the United Kingdom.

It's estimated that 70% of the reserves are recoverable and the find has the potential to add $0.40 to Eni's per share value.

Things are also going very well for Statoil (NYSE: STO  ) and ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) in Tanzania, Mozambique's neighbor to the north. The two companies spudded a well 50 miles off the mainland in January, and though the well won't be completed until sometime in March, early results are promising.

In fact, there are great expectations for Tanzania's offshore reserves. Some see the number reaching as high as 60 trillion cubic feet in the next five years, which likely means billions of dollars in foreign investments.

Digging deeper
East Africa is far from an ideal place to do business. Many of the countries are poor and many of the governments are unstable. Things are so bad in Somalia that 50 leaders from around the world are meeting in London today to develop a plan to help the country and improve the region's safety. The violent piracy that occurs offshore Somalia costs the world about $7 billion a year. If nothing is done, you can bet that number will go up as energy investment in the region continues to grow.

The major gas finds, and the ensuing liquefied natural gas exports, will drastically alter the economies in this region. Consider that as recently as 2010, there was little to no energy production coming from these countries.

Country

Past Production

Mozambique No oil, 110 BCF gas
Kenya No oil, no gas
Tanzania No oil, 28 BCF gas exported in 2010
Madagascar No oil, no gas

Source: Energy Information Administration.

Essentially some of the poorest economies in the world will now move from zero to 60 at the hands of oil and gas companies. This will very likely go one of two ways: very well or terribly.

To its credit, the Tanzanian government has been quick to get its ducks in a row. It is in the process of drafting a natural gas "master plan," including a bill that would govern the treatment of gas revenue.

Still, Big Oil doesn't have the best reputation in Africa, and the growth of natural gas production in this region should be watched closely.

At least Shell isn't involved
It is now! Africa's most notorious oil producer, Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-A  ) , has joined the East African natural gas game with a bid to buy Cove Energy for $1.56 billion in cash. Cove holds an 8.5% stake in the Rovuma field offshore Mozambique that is operated by Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC  ) . Recoverable reserves there are estimated at 15 to 30 TCF.

When I first wrote about Cove Energy putting itself up for sale, I didn't list Shell as a potential buyer. But the company, perhaps best known in Africa for leaking oil all over Nigeria for the last 50 years, is intent on increasing its natural gas holdings. It already has assets in Tanzania, and is now looking to expand into Kenya and Mozambique. The Cove purchase will knock Mozambique off the list.

Cove's board is expected to approve the bid, meaning that the Mozambique government will have the final say on the purchase.

Foolish takeaway
It is important for investors to pay attention to the development of specific projects in specific regions, but ultimately, the focus on East Africa signifies something on a much grander scale: In the next five years, there is going to be a lot of natural gas on the market.

Global demand is high now, but there is no sign it will abate anytime soon, especially as midstream infrastructure develops and natural gas is used more frequently as an alternative fuel to gasoline. In fact, now is the best time to consider the stock that's fueling that movement as we speak.

Fool contributor Aimee Duffy owns shares of Statoil, but she holds no other position in any company mentioned. If you have the energy, check out what she's keeping an eye on by following her on Twitter, where she goes by @TMFDuffy.

Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Statoil. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2012, at 12:30 PM, EllenBrandtPhD wrote:

    Aimee,

    Because the MIB has been under pressure the past two days, two very Bullish pieces of news for E are not yet "in the stock."

    First of all, Iran declared in no uncertain terms yesterday that it would be honoring its commitments to send owed cargoes to E no matter what else occurred re its relationship with the EU.

    That mostly contrived "uncertainty" has been hanging over the stock and keeping it back versus its closest peers. Now that uncertainty is removed.

    And this morning, E's CEO made a statement to the European press that he expects E and its shareholders to reap a "very good price" for whatever of portion of SNAM the company might sell in accordance with Italian government wishes.

    The partial SNAM sale is good news for shareholders in any case, since SNAM has been "troubled" compared to other parts of the company.

    But the CEO's deliberate declaration that "we will get a very good price" is a form of putting his reputation on the line - and as one knows, it is quite an impressive reputation.

    (Re the MIB, by the way: US and Canadian shareholders who have not been following European markets closely might not know that, despite a couple of negative days, the MIB has outperformed most European markets the past couple of months. It's done very, very well.

    (And the last few days in Eurozone markets have been mostly pre-positioning, IMO, ahead of LTRO Part Deux next week, which is likely to provoke another Uber-rally in European stocks.)

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