Will Exxon Get Lucky in Ireland?

ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , the world's largest publicly traded international oil and gas company, and its consortium of partners recently began a drilling campaign in the waters off the west coast of Ireland.  

The company and its partners will be exploring the Dunquin prospect, located in the Porcupine Basin approximately 90 miles off the coast of County Kerry. The area is named after Ireland's most westerly settlement and is estimated to contain recoverable reserves of around 5.5 trillion cubic feet of gas and 850 million barrels of oil – potential thought to be similar to Encana's (NYSE: ECA  ) Panuke field offshore Nova Scotia.  

Along with Exxon, the consortium of companies involved in the project includes Italy's Eni, Spain's Repsol, and Ireland's Providence Resources with its partner Sosina. The drilling program, estimated to last about six months, could cost as much as $200 million.

To explore Dunquin, which had been avoided by energy producers for decades, Exxon has dispatched a semi-submersible rig to the area that was previously drilling off the coast of Liberia. Providence Resources reported last month it began drilling the 44/23-1 well at the Dunquin prospect. Tony O'Reilly, Providence's CEO, said in a company statement:

We are pleased to confirm that drilling operations on the Dunquin exploration well have now commenced. This is a landmark well given that it is the first to be drilled in the central part of the deep-water southern Porcupine Basin and is designed to test a new and potentially material Lower Cretaceous carbonate exploration play concept. The 44/23-1 well is the second of six wells being drilled as part of Providence's Irish concerted multi-basin, multi-well drilling program which kicked off in November 2011 with the Barryroe appraisal well.

Providence's announcement came just days after Kosmos Energy (NYSE: KOS  ) inked a deal with Europa Oil and Gas and Antrim Energy to begin drilling in nearby blocks of acreage, according to the Financial Times. Kosmos was instrumental in developing the Jubilee field, one of the biggest African deepwater discoveries of the past decade, along with partner Tullow Oil, and its expertise should prove useful in exploring Dunquin.

The companies involved in the drilling campaign hope Dunquin will yield similar success to other recent projects in the area, such as the Barryroe discovery in the Celtic Sea off Ireland's southern coast, which was recently estimated to hold technically recoverable resources totaling nearly 350 million barrels of oil equivalent.  

High risk, high reward
Though hydrocarbons have been discovered off Ireland's west coast before, previous exploratory programs failed to recover commercial quantities of oil and gas. But now, with the benefit of significantly improved drilling technology, better infrastructure, and currently favorable tax laws, the companies involved are hoping for a breakthrough.

Kosmos' senior vice-president and chief geoscientist, Paul Dailly, described his company's interest in the Porcupine Basin as an opportunity to invest in "overlooked and under-explored basins." New investments in largely untested deepwater exploration prospects such as Dunquin illustrate how energy companies are taking on greater risk by pursuing ventures in harder to reach deepwater locations in search of oil and gas.

Exxon, which is struggling to boost its total oil and gas production despite one of the best returns on capital employed in the industry, has been quite the globetrotter, having signed a deal with Russia's Rosneft to explore the harsh, icy waters of the Arctic and having bought blocks of acreage offshore South Africa. But only time will tell if the company's ambitious efforts will pay off.

While Exxon may be having difficulty boosting its oil and gas production, companies focused exclusively on exploration and production are having better luck. Chesapeake Energy, for instance, has reported nearly 40% year-over-year liquids percentage growth. As the company transitions away from natural gas production, will it manage to meet its oil production target and boost cash flow? Or will it languish under the weight of its heavy debt load? To answer that question and to learn more about Chesapeake and its enormous potential, you're invited to check out The Motley Fool's brand-new premium report on the company. Simply click here now to access your copy, and as an added bonus, you'll receive a full year of key updates and expert guidance as news continues to develop.


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