Anadarko Gom

Photo credit: Anadarko Petroleum 

ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) is having a terrific year finding oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico. The company, along with partner BP (NYSE:BP), just recently announced a significant oil discovery at the BP-operated Gila prospect in the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico. For ConocoPhillips, this discovery marked the company's fourth deepwater Gulf of Mexico discovery. Meanwhile, the discovery capped off a very successful year for BP. In fact, 2013 will go down as the company's most successful exploration year in almost a decade.

The Gila prospect is about 300 miles southwest of New Orleans. The exploratory well that led to the discovery was drilled in 4,900 feet of water and drilled to a depth 29,221 feet. While the exact extent of the discovery is not yet known, it is believed that there is a significant amount of commercially recoverable oil at this depth with the potential for additional discoveries in deeper zones. That's really good news for ConocoPhillips, which owns 20% of the Gila prospect, and even more so for BP, as it is the operator of the project and owns the other 80% of the prospect.

The discovery at Gila caps the end of a really great year for ConocoPhillips in the Gulf of Mexico. Earlier this year the company announced the massive Shenandoah discovery with Anadarko (NYSE:APC), and followed that up with the Coronado find with Chevron (NYSE:CVX). ConocoPhillips was also a partner in the BP discovery at Tiber in 2009.

The Anadarko-led Shenandoah prospect currently appears to be the biggest find for ConocoPhillips this year. An appraisal well found more than 1,000 feet of net pay, which is the area containing commercially producible oil and gas. ConocoPhillips owns a 30% working interest in that well. Meanwhile, the Coronado prospect with Anadarko and Chevron encountered about 400 feet of net pay. While ConocoPhillips owns a larger working interest at 35%, this discovery doesn't appear to be as large -- but that could change as the companies continue to appraise the resource prospect.

What's important for investors to see is that these discoveries really help to validate ConocoPhillips' big investments in the Gulf of Mexico. The company has been very actively leasing in the Gulf over the past few years, and has now amassed a 2.2 million net acre position. That gives the company a lot of opportunities to continue drilling, and, with four finds already on the books, the Gulf will be a big part of ConocoPhillips' future production.

That said, investors shouldn't expect smooth sailing in the years ahead. BP knows this all too well, and is a good case study for investors as to the risks of operating in the Gulf. We all remember what happened at Macando, but that's just one of the many risks that producers face when exploring for oil. Another is the real risk that not all of ConocoPhillps acreage has oil. For example, while this year was BP's best year in nearly a decade, it only made commercially viable oil and gas discoveries at seven of its 15 wildcat exploration wells. That's just a 40% success rate. Further, the company was also forced to write off more than a billion dollars after a well in Brazil found non-commercial quantities of oil and gas. ConocoPhillips investors need to realize that the company could end up with a few dry holes in its future. 

While deepwater drilling has its risks, the rewards of a big find are enough to continue to lure producers. The fact that this year was a great one for many in the Gulf of Mexico will likely keep capital flowing to the region. While shale oil gets a lot of the credit for America's changing energy landscape, the rebirth of the Gulf is just as critical to helping us achieve our dreams of energy independence.

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Fool contributor Matt DiLallo owns shares of ConocoPhillips. The Motley Fool recommends Chevron. 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.