Alta Energy Partners, a newly formed joint venture of privately held Alta Resources LLC and an affiliate of The Blackstone Group, launched plans Tuesday to invest up to $1 billion in unconventional natural gas and oil properties in North America.

Blackstone Capital Partners and Alta Resources already have identified several “potentially attractive” investment opportunities in “emerging and developed” shale basins in North America. But it’s too early to be specific about where the partners may target their investments, Alta Resources CEO Joe Greenberg told NGI’s Shale Daily.

“We’re not limiting ourselves to any play in North America,” Greenberg, a geologist by trade, said of the joint venture. “We have had a broad exposure to shale plays over the past 11 years or so and today there are myriad opportunities. The field is wide open.”

The financial backing and energy expertise of Blackstone will allow the new partnership the money it needs, he said.

“Millions of acres are currently leased for North American shale oil and gas, requiring extraordinary amounts of capital to develop,” Greenberg said.

The privately held Alta Resources, which is based in Houston, was formed by Greenberg in 1999. In the past 11 years Alta Resources has drilled or participated in more than 160 wells in Arkansas and Pennsylvania, as well as in Texas, Louisiana and Alabama, with an overall success rate of 95%.

Alta Resources had a solid Marcellus Shale leasehold, which it sold to Williams Cos. last year for $501 million in cash (see Daily GPI, May 26, 2010). Four years ago the partnership also sold its Fayetteville Shale assets to Petrohawk Energy Corp. for $343 million in cash (see Daily GPI, Nov. 28, 2007).

The joint venture with Blackstone begins a new day for Alta Resources, Greenberg said. Although the company and its partners have a long reputation in the onshore gas plays, that doesn’t mean the new joint venture will focus only on gas plays, Greenberg said.

“Today there is a very large amount of shale acreage under lease and a very large amount of capital required to drill the acreage,” said Greenberg. “There are so many million acres and so many plays…I can’t say specifically which plays we’re going to look at but we’ve got the technical expertise and Blackstone has expertise in the energy sector to go after anything. We’re excited about the possibilities.”

Alta Resources’ partners include energy icon George P. Mitchell.

Mitchell, who has been with Alta Resources since the beginning, is considered the father of shale drilling. In the 1990s Woodlands, TX-based Mitchell Energy & Development Corp. perfected the earliest successful shale drilling techniques by combining hydraulic fracturing practices with horizontal drilling to tap into the Barnett Shale in North Texas. Mitchell sold the company to Devon Energy Corp. in 2001 for $3.1 billion in cash and stock (see Daily GPI, Aug. 15, 2001), but he and his family have continued to invest in the energy business.

Mitchell’s son J. Todd Mitchell is an Alta Resources board member who represents the family interests in the company.

Houston-based Contango Oil & Gas Inc. also is an Alta Resources partner. Contango CEO Kenneth R. Peak said Tuesday his company has committed $20 million over the next two years to the new joint venture.

“Alta was our partner in our very successful Fayetteville Shale investment and they have been leaders in recognizing and capturing value in shale plays,” said Peak. “We also look forward to being partners with Blackstone with their financial acumen and expertise.”

David I. Foley, who heads Blackstone’s private equity investment activities in the energy and natural resources sector, noted that Greenberg and his team had worked together for several years. The team “has very strong geological and technical skills and a track record of generating outstanding returns for their investors.”

The combination of Alta Resources’ technical knowledge and Blackstone’s “strong capital base, network and industry knowledge…is going to allow Alta Energy Partners to stand apart as the partner of choice for companies seeking joint ventures or exits for their shale oil and gas assets,” Greenberg said.