ExxonMobil Buys Stake in Major West African Field

Jubilee Field
(Click to Enlarge)

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (via Dow Jones), Oct. 7, 2009

Exxon Mobil Corp. has agreed to buy a $4 billion stake in an oil field off the coast of Ghana, according to people involved in the deal, as the global energy giant seeks a foothold in a major new oil-producing region.

The deal is Exxon's first major purchase in a decade and appears to highlight that the company believes oil prices will rise over the long term. Some energy analysts have asserted that weak demand for the fuel can't support even the current price of $70 a barrel.

A spokesman for Exxon declined to comment. People briefed on the deal said that while the parties have reached a binding agreement, the deal hasn't yet been completed and is therefore subject to change. One outstanding issue is that the Ghanaian national oil company has the right to increase its stake, according to a person involved in the transaction.

The seller is Dallas-based Kosmos Energy, which was part of a group that made the 2007 offshore discovery that is estimated to hold 1.8 billion barrels of oil. Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Tullow Oil PLC also own separate stakes in the field, known as Jubilee.

On Monday Kosmos informed bidders for its 23.5% stake in the field that it had "entered into an exclusive binding agreement" with Exxon, according to a person who had seen the letter.

The news of the deal was cheered by investors. In London trading, Tullow rose 8.4% to GBP 12.09 ($19.28). In New York, Anadarko gained 6.1% to $65.38 and Exxon rose 1.6% at $68.66.

Also in New York, shares of Blackstone Group LP, a part-owner of Kosmos along with private-equity firm Warburg Pincus, rose 6.2%.

The oil industry has become increasingly optimistic about the prospects for oil production in this region of the West African coast. This summer, a separate consortium announced a discovery off Sierra Leone, leading analysts to speculate that the 700-mile stretch between the two finds could be dotted with buried sands containing precious light crude oil.

Exxon's entry amounts to a seal of approval. "If Exxon Mobil likes this stuff, then everyone knows it's good," says Neil McMahon, an energy analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein.

The acquisition is the largest deal for the famously conservative company in over a decade. In the late 1990s, Exxon Corp. and Mobil Corp. combined in an $81.2 billion merger, creating the world's largest shareholder-owned oil company.

Around the same time, Exxon bid aggressively for licenses in several deepwater blocks off Angola, which was then an unproven oil region emerging from years of civil war. The deal proved prescient: Angola is now a major oil producer and in 2007 became a member of OPEC.

Opening its wallet to purchase oil assets signals a new strategic direction for Exxon. Over the last decade, the Texas behemoth has been reluctant to make any large purchases, even as its holdings of cash and repurchased stock ballooned. At midyear, it held $15.6 billion in cash, and the value of treasury shares it has bought back since 2001 were worth $173.6 billion.

The Ghana purchase suggests Exxon is moving to replenish its oil reserves by building its portfolio asset by asset, rather than by making a megadeal. Indeed, analysts say that Exxon, with its $325 billion market capitalization, may be too big already in the eyes of regulators to swallow another large oil company.

Exxon also is engaged in some high-profile, deepwater exploration activities off the coasts of the Philippines, Turkey, Madagascar and Greenland.

It isn't clear which company would be the operator of Jubilee, which is expected to begin producing oil in 2010. Tullow has a 34.7% stake and Anadarko also holds a large interest.

Copyright (c) 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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