The finance chiefs at U.S. exploration and production companies appear more optimistic about the prospects of accessing capital in the coming year, but they remain concerned about volatility in the global economy, according to a survey by consultant BDO USA LLP.

BDO’s “2012 Energy Outlook Survey,” conducted in November, polled the opinions of 100 CFOs working for domestic operators. Of those surveyed, 18% reported feeling “much better” about capital market access, up from 5% in 2010. About 10% of those surveyed cited accessing capital as their greatest financial challenge, which is down from 22% a year ago.

“Confidence in the ability to access capital has grown steadily over the past year, allowing management teams to advance discovery and development plans,” said BDO’s Charles Dewhurst, practice leader in the natural resources industry group. “This confidence has led to a notable uptick in investor interest, particularly with private equity investment in the oil and gas industry.”

CFOs are concerned about legislative changes and the politically charged environment in which they will be debated, according to BDO. More than half (51%) believe that legislative changes will be the “greatest factor inhibiting growth in the oil and gas industry” in 2012, and 38% see legislative changes as their organization’s “greatest financial hurdle.”

Partisan politics in Washington, DC, may be partially to blame for this anxiety, with 29% calling it their top political concern for the next year. Other big political concerns are tax proposals targeting the energy industry (39%) and the federal budget deficit (27%).

“Despite these sentiments, CFOs remain confident in their own organization’s ability to withstand a volatile market, and many are investing in more competitive strategies than were seen during the recession,” BDO said. Among other things, 54% are projecting an increase in the number of rigs operated by their companies.

About two-thirds (64%) of those responding believe the economy will have a negative impact on the demand for oil and gas in 2012, BDO said. Fears over a double-dip recession are believed to pose the greatest risk to volatile oil prices (35%), followed by turmoil in the Middle East (27%), economic growth in Asian countries (22%) and worries over the European debt crisis (7%).

“While most organizations are better prepared for a recession than they were in 2008, CFOs are still anxious about another major dip in the economy and the implications of continued international unrest,” said Dewhurst.

Compensation is tracking with industry growth, the survey found. More than half (52%) of CFOs reported that in 2011 executive compensation was tied more closely to performance than in 2010 (44%). Forty-seven percent of CFOs expect their compensation to increase in 2012, compared with 20% in last year’s survey; 44% expect their pay to remain steady. Year-end employee bonuses are largely holding steady, but 28% expect bonuses to be “larger” or “significantly larger” than in 2010.

“CFOs have repeatedly indicated that their companies are structuring pay opportunities consistent with key performance indicators,” said BDO’s Lance Froelich, senior director of executive compensation. “Given the industry’s strength and the returns being realized by investors in 2011, it should come as no surprise that executives are expecting a commensurate compensation increase.”

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