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Royal Dutch Shell Plc .com: Tapping older oil fields for profitable leftovers

By Joe Carroll Bloomberg News
Published: July 4, 2006
 
CHICAGO Older oil fields, shunned by the giants of the industry, are turning into big business for a batch of smaller firms.
 
NGP Energy Capital Management, ATP Oil & Gas and Whiting Petroleum are getting enough crude to fuel nine million cars a day from fields that BP and Exxon Mobil had given up for empty.
 
The revivals are giving bigger investment returns than new projects. NGP Energy, the largest U.S. energy buyout firm, has gained 31 percent a year since 1988 by squeezing older fields, said Kenneth Hersh, the NGP chief executive. Exxon Mobil rose 9.5 percent a year in that time.
 
“We are in the business of finding fields that have been underexploited by prior owners,” said Hersh, a protégé of the billionaire Texan Richard Rainwater. “It’s a common fallacy that the oil is getting harder to find. It’s there for those adept at handling these old fields.”
 
About 7 percent of U.S. production, or 608,000 barrels a day, comes from properties the bigger drillers abandoned, according to estimates from the Energy Department in Washington. Whiting Petroleum, ATP Oil and smaller producers are increasing their share of the domestic market as large companies explore for new deposits.
 
Oil prices are near a record, averaging more than $70 a barrel in New York during the past two months. Exxon Mobil’s profit soared to a record $36 billion last year, and the oil industry is increasing its exploration spending.
 
Exxon Mobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell, the three largest publicly traded oil companies, sell fields that are as much as 50 years old to finance investments in the Gulf of Mexico, in Siberia, and off the coast of Africa, where discoveries of a billion barrels of oil or more may still be possible.
 
On June 21, BP sold a group of oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico to Apache for $1.3 billion, or $22.49 for each barrel of proven reserves. At current prices, the oil that might be pumped from the deposits would be worth more than $3 billion. Anadarko Petroleum plans to sell older fields to finance its $21 billion acquisition of Kerr-McGee and Western Gas Resources, announced last week.
 
There may be 89 billion barrels of crude oil valued at $6 trillion at current prices left behind in U.S. fields that have been discovered and tapped, said Otis Mills at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh.
 
This oil is not counted as “proven reserves” because pumping it has not been commercially viable until recently. Still, the amount exceeds the proven deposits held by Russia, Venezuela or any country outside the Middle East. Shell says it seeks bigger challenges.
 
“Those smaller players have a different set of skills they can use to exploit mature fields,” said John Hofmeister, president of Shell’s U.S. arm. “Our expertise is size.” Output from those older fields barely affects Shell’s bottom-line profit, which was $25.3 billion last year.
 
The biggest producers still get the most out of the dollars spent on exploration and production. Return on capital employed, a common industry yardstick, is 35 percent for Shell, the industry leader, 29 percent for Exxon Mobil, and just 10 percent for Whiting. 

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