Last year “large overseas companies” invested more than $15 billion in U.S. shale plays, and they weren’t putting down the money to “expect juicy margins at $4/Mcf gas,” analysts with Raymond James & Associates Inc. said Monday.

Although global shale prospects are only now beginning to be realized, the “ability to apply lessons from North America is essential,” noted the analysts. Companies eventually will be able to take what they learn and leverage it, possibly first in Europe, where shale development is in its infancy, and beyond in Asia and other markets.

No commercial development of shale gas yet exists anywhere in Europe, but that could change before the end of the decade, said the analysts. Their estimate is similar to other analysts’ outlook for overseas shale production. Wood Mackenzie’s Robert Clarke told NGI’s Shale Daily last year that overseas development likely would begin in Europe (see Shale Daily, Nov. 3, 2010).

According to data from the Energy Information Administration, Asia leads the world in technically recoverable shale gas resources with 1,404 Tcf, followed by South America with 1,225 Tcf, North America (1,069 Tcf), Africa (1,042 Tcf), Europe (624 Tcf) and Australia (396 Tcf).

“Roughly 40 companies are in the mix,” looking for shale deposits in Europe alone, with many of them exploration and production micro-caps, the Raymond James team said. “All of these companies are in early stages of exploration, e.g., conducting seismic surveys or just starting to drill. Only a few wells have been actually completed thus far.”

But “don’t hold your breath” waiting for European shale resources to be tapped.

In even the next two to three years, “it would be entirely unrealistic to expect any significant surge in European shale gas exploration,” noted the Raymond James team. “The No. 1 bottleneck is the rig count.”

By Raymond James’ estimates, there are about 1,700 onshore rigs in the United States. In Europe there are around 80.

“Similarly, skilled labor for drilling crews is harder to come by, and production infrastructure is present in some areas but not others.” In addition, producers face “intense environmental regulation.”

In addition, European shales “tend to be located in more densely populated areas,” which is “both a blessing and a curse; there is a readily available local gas market with plenty of pipeline takeaway capacity, but the impact of drilling operations, especially vis-a-vis water supply, is more pronounced than in, say, East Texas.”

In five years or so overseas shale gas “is a trend of which energy investors should be aware,” noted the analysts. “For now overseas shale is in its infancy, and the commerciality of key resource plays remains uncertain.”