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Former Unocal, BP Execs Launch New E&P Company with $500M Financing

A team led by former Unocal Corp. and BP plc executives on Thursday announced the launch of Cobalt International Energy LP, which will focus on exploration and production in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico and other "high potential" global basins. The endeavor initially will be backed with $500 million in financing by private equity firms Carlyle/Riverstone and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners.

Cobalt will be led by former Unocal president and COO Joseph H. Bryant, who will serve as the new chairman and CEO. Also joining the leadership team is former Unocal general counsel Samuel H. Gillespie, who will serve as vice chairman. James H. Painter, who will be executive vice president of exploration, is Unocal's former exploration vice president. James W. Farnsworth, who will take over as president and COO effective Feb. 1, is currently vice president for World-Wide Exploration and Technology at BP. And Laura E. Munoz of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz will join the team in early January as general counsel.

"I believe that the outstanding team that we have formed, utilizing the best technology and backed by a group of respected investors, will yield impressive results," said Bryant. "We will immediately hire critical technical team members who are experts in the basins where we will focus. In addition, we have begun discussions with strategic industry players in the international exploration and production sector that may join the Cobalt investor team. We expect that from the outset we will be competitive explorers in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico and select international basins."

Bryant said, "Oil and natural gas prices are high because of strong growth in demand. Exploration needs to keep pace with future growth. This makes Cobalt's concentrated, technology-focused exploration all the more timely. We believe that substantial oil and gas remain to be discovered, and we will quickly be in a position to deliver outstanding exploration and business results."

Cobalt has no acreage, but Bryant expects the new producer to buy up leases in the turnover he expects to see in the Gulf. For example, Houston Exploration announced last month it would sell of its offshore leases to concentrate its operations domestically onshore (see NGI, Nov. 14). Cobalt also plans to finance international operations, and Bryant said the company will have at least two more financial infusions from international investors that could raise between $125-250 million.

Drilling "can easily cost $500,000 a day," and take from six to nine months before results are in, said Bryant. The new company plans to "de-risk the process" by finding talent "beyond Houston and Tulsa" and by using cutting edge technology.

David M. Leuschen, co-founder of Riverstone Holdings and managing director of Carlyle/Riverstone Global Energy and Power Funds, said, "Joe has assembled a stellar executive team, which is among the most experienced, respected and skilled in the global exploration and production industry. Along with the rest of the Cobalt team, we believe they will create a 'super-explorer' enterprise that will deliver great results."

The investment by the private equity firms marks a trend in the energy industry. Goldman previously invested in Denver-based Bill Barrett Corp. three years ago as part of a consortium (see NGI, April 8, 2002). The two investment firms expect to see returns of at least 30% on the new operation.

Kenneth Pontarelli, managing director of Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, added, "We expect the Cobalt team to be formidable players from day one. They will engage in high-impact exploration on a global scale. The investor team of Goldman Sachs and Carlyle/Riverstone provides Cobalt the means to compete anywhere in the world."

Bryant was president and COO at Unocal until September. Between 1993 to 2004, he served as president of BP Angola, BP Canada and of an Amoco/CNOOC joint venture in China. He has also held executive leadership positions for Amoco business units in The Netherlands and the Gulf of Mexico and numerous engineering, financial and operational assignments throughout the continental United States. Gillespie was general counsel of Unocal from 2003 until September. Since 2002, Farnsworth has led BP's World-Wide Exploration and Technology division, with responsibility for global exploration strategy and execution. Painter had been at Unocal since 2004, and prior to that, he was head of Gulf of Mexico and international exploration at Ocean Energy Inc.

The Carlyle Group and Riverstone Holdings are the co-general partners of Carlyle/Riverstone Global Energy and Power Funds. Riverstone, a New York-based energy and power focused private equity firm founded in 2000, has $4.5 billion under management, and it conducts buyout and growth capital investments in the midstream, upstream, power and oilfield service sectors of the energy industry. To date, the firm has committed $1.3 billion to 16 investments across each of these four sectors, involving $15 billion of assets. Carlyle is a global private equity firm with $35 billion under management, which invests in buyouts, venture capital, real estate and leveraged finance in North America, Europe and Asia. Since 1987, the firm has invested $14.9 billion of equity in 439 transactions.

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