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ConocoPhillips Quietly Adding North American Gas Prospects

ConocoPhillips avoided the "feeding frenzies" that followed the hyped natural gas and oil discoveries in North America, but that doesn't mean the company hasn't been surreptitiously piecing together acreage in emerging tight gas and oil shale plays across the continent, company officials said last week.

The Houston-based producer for years quietly has acquired properties in Canada, the Lower 48 states, Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico (GOM), COO John Carrig and the management team told financial analysts at the company's annual meeting in New York City. However, the stealthy approach means the producer doesn't always get credit for being one of the largest North American players.

"We tend to shy away from the feeding frenzies," Carrig said, referring to the media attention following discoveries last year including in the Haynesville Shale and the Horn River Basin. "But we've invested over $1 billion in the past few years in several plays: the Chukchi Sea in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, especially in the Lower Tertiary...and we continue to pick up acreage in onshore plays..."

With more than 3 Bcf/d in gas output, Conoco is one of the top gas producers in North America. The daily production, tied into strategic transportation and storage assets, helps leverage physical gas sales that approach 14 Bcf/d.

Conoco would rather operate without the publicity, but that hasn't always worked to the company's advantage, said Carrig. He wanted to be sure analysts were aware of the "impressive positions" the company holds in the better known producing areas and in frontier basins.

In the U.S. onshore, Conoco has long been one of the biggest leaseholders in the San Juan Basin, the "mother of all coalbed methane," he noted. Conoco also has invested in Wyoming's Bakken Formation, added to its fortunes in the Barnett Shale of Texas, and it has a legacy leasehold in the Haynesville Shale. In addition, acreage was acquired in two of Canada's most promising gas plays, the Upper Montney and the Horn River Basin, which complement mature acreage in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin.

Conoco is the top producer in Alaska, and it has a growing foothold in the GOM, especially in the Lower Tertiary of the deepwater. There, Conoco added 288,000 net acres to its portfolio in the last three Minerals Management Service GOM leasehold sales.

Conoco may "spend less money to acquire them, but we have a huge footprint in many of the best plays," Carrig said.

But don't expect the pep talk last Tuesday to be an indication that Conoco is pursuing the spotlight. Conoco acquired a stake in the emerging Eagleford Shale of South Texas, but it wasn't planning to provide many details. However, other companies began to report their horizontal drilling successes in the play, forcing Conoco to reveal that it too was in the play.

Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (see related story), St. Mary Land & Exploration Co., TXCO Resources Inc. and Petrohawk Energy Corp. are but a few to recently announce development plans in the Eagleford Shale (see NGI, March 2; April 7, 2008).

Other North American prospects also in the bin, but Conoco wants to take time developing acreage and conducting tests before making any announcements. And in this economy, exploitation on some of its vast holdings may wait for better days down the road, said officials.

Because of lower commodity prices and lower energy demand, Conoco plans to slow its pace in North America, especially in some of the more price-sensitive resource plays, and some of the budget will be redeployed to other areas of the globe. About 30% of the $12.5 billion capital expenditure budget will be directed toward North American exploration.

"In the Barnett, Bakken, Montney and the Eagleford Shale, we'll spend money in the best parts of these," Carrig said. "We're not just working in old established areas, but in emerging, proven basins and in frontier basins...The 2009 drilling program has a strong focus on high-impact prospects."

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