2012 has been a stellar year for oil and gas. From East Africa to North America, new technology, major new discoveries, an unparalleled appetite for exploration and a metamorphosing perception of risk have changed the playing field.
We're looking at potential rather than existing production, and here are our Top 5 picks for this year:
Turkana County, Kenya
We have to start with Kenya, the biggest success story of the year.
In March, the UK's Tullow Oil and Canada's Africa Oil Corp. discovered 100 meters of oil in the Ngamia-1 well. The euphoria was in part because this discovery was made on the very first try in the very first well. Stocks shot up to record highs as a result.
The euphoria has not abated. In late November, the same duo made another find of 30 meters of oil in the nearby Twiga-1 well.
September also saw Kenya strike 53 meters of natural gas in its first-ever offshore find in the Mbawa-1 well, off the coast of Malindi. US-based Apache Corp. owns 50% the well in a consortium with a handful of other companies. They're still digging, hoping that going deeper will reveal the oil.
The bigger picture, however, is that only the surface has been scratched in terms of exploration. The East Africa Rift is believed to hold over 70 billion barrels of untapped crude oil, while offshore Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique have a joint estimated 250 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. There may be offshore oil, too. The oil discoveries in Kenya so far have been confined to one massive basin, and there are six more.
In addition to the size of the prize here, Kenya is favorable for other reasons as well: It offers relative political stability in the midst of a rather restless Africa; it offers attractive fiscal terms; it offers easy access to export markets; and it has an appetite for infrastructure that is hard to beat.
While 2013 may see some changes in the regulatory environment that could be less favorable, as for 2012, Kenya remains THE number one East African play in terms of potential. Next year will give us a better idea of commercial viability.
Bakken, North Dakota
The Bakken shale play has placed North Dakota ahead of Alaska, making it the number two oil producer in the US for 2012, after Texas. Because of Bakken, the US has increased oil production this year to a level it hasn't seen in almost a decade and a half. In one month alone this year, North Dakota issued 370 drilling permits.
Stretching from Eastern Montana to Western North Dakota and across parts of Saskatchewa and Manitoba in the Williston Basin, the Bakken Shale Play could yield some 4.3 billion barrels of oil, according to the US Geological Survey. That's the modest estimate. Continental Resources—one of the major Bakken players—estimates as much as 40 billion barrels.
The clincher is that much of the vast Bakken Petroleum System has not even been tapped. So far, drilling has primarily targeted the Middle Bakken and the upper Three Forks Zones. The Three Forks Zones have not been fully tapped, and the Upper Bakken Shale hasn't really been tapped at all.
Eagle Ford, South Texas
Eagle Ford is potentially the next Bakken. It's one of the most ACTIVE plays in the US right now. And what the majors and juniors are playing with is 7,500 in total acreage, five producing wells, two more wells being drilled, and the potential for 100 wells. This year, oil production has increased to some 300,000 bpd (as of August).
Natural gas is also a major Eagle Ford offering. Last year, it produced 914 million cubic feet of natural gas, though that has dropped slightly for this year.
So far, drilling seems to have had even better results than in Bakken. And there is a great deal of confidence and optimism. Enough so that Marathon Oil is planning to shift its primary focus from Bakken to Eagle Ford and spend one-third of its operating budget there. Right now Marathon is producing around 40,000 net barrels of oil equivalent (boe) per day and plans to more than double this next year. It's already doubled production this year (and, incidentally, seen its profits jump 11% in the first quarter).
The biggest producer is EOG Resources, putting out about 110,000 boe/day and holding reserves of around 1.6 billion boe.
Analysts think Eagle Ford could end up out-producing the Permian Basin in west Texas—and soon.
The Levant Basin in the Mediterranean has an estimated 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, and around 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil. And the area has seen a flurry of activity recently.
Between 25 and 33 billion cubic feet of this gas is in Israeli waters. The rest is carved up between Greek-held Northern Cyprus (which is a bit problematic), Syria and Lebanon.
Of course, along with this potential comes some uncomfortable geopolitics; on one hand among Israel, Lebanon and Syria; on the other hand between Israel, Turkey and the Greek Cypriots.
The first new natural gas field in the region is expected to begin full-scale production this year, with two additional fields coming on-line over the next six years.
Specifically, we're talking about:
The discovery to two offshore natural gas fields in northern Israel (Leviathan and Tamar) with an estimated 25 trillion cubic feet (about 100 years year of gas for Israeli domestic use)
Estimates that Israel has a potential 1.9 billion barrels of untapped oil
About 5-6 tcf of natural gas in the Aphrodite field claimed by Greek-held Northern Cyprus (just west of Israel's Leviathan field)
Exploitation will be a bit expensive, though. Israel's offshore fields are located 100 kilometers from the coast and in 6,000 feet of water. The natural gas is some 5,000 feet under the sea bed.
Offshore Tanzania & Mozambique
Tanzania has become a gas sensation in a very short time, with recent offshore discoveries of some 33 trillion cubic feet.
Sweetening the deal, we have political stability and low security risk, relatively speaking, as well as an existing 70-million-cubic-feet/day capacity for natural gas processing. More gas infrastructure is in the works.
Next door, Mozambique's 130 trillion cubic feet of gas in its offshore Rovuma Basin is eye candy for foreign investors, and officials believe there is double this amount still waiting to be discovered. It's not as attractive as Tanzania for one reason: There is no infrastructure.