A flurry of shale business combinations over the last three years “are just the beginning of an asset shift in the industry,” according to a report issued by PricewaterhouseCoopers USA (PwC).

The value of such deals across the energy sector showed a “substantial increase” in 2010 compared with 2009, according to PwC, which said small equipment and service providers will become attractive acquisition targets as more high-technology intensive shale wells are developed.

The biggest shale-specific transaction completed to date in 2010 is ExxonMobil Corp.’s $41 billion purchase of XTO Energy Corp., whose shale empire is spread across almost every U.S. play (see Daily GPI, June 28; Dec. 15, 2009).

Chevron Corp. recently said it would pay $4.3 billion to buy Atlas Energy Inc.’s million-acre-plus domestic shale leasehold (see Shale Daily, Nov. 10).

Other deals this year include Royal Dutch Shell plc’s $4.7 billion acquisition of subsidiaries of privately held East Resources Inc. (see Daily GPI, June 1) and Reliance Industries Ltd.’s $1.7 billion deal to join Atlas Energy in the Marcellus Shale (see Daily GPI, April 12) and its subsequent $392 million offer to partner with Carrizo Oil & Gas Inc. in the Marcellus (see Daily GPI, Aug. 6).

Big spending by Big Oil in the U.S. shale plays is leading to a big-time recovery in global upstream capital spending, according to energy consultant Wood Mackenzie (see Shale Daily, Nov. 15). Global spending this year is forecast to be more than $380 billion, led by a “spectacular” recovery in the United States. The most spending year to date is in the Marcellus Shale, followed by the Haynesville and Eagle Ford plays, according to Wood Mackenzie.

As independent exploration and production companies’ hedges start rolling off and they react to the changing economics of their portfolios, there could be an uptick in asset transactions, PwC said.