The U.S. asset foreign companies want (and are buying)

Foreign companies are gaga for this U.S. energy asset. Two deals announced today suggest the buying spree isn't slowing down anytime soon.

Foreign interest in U.S. and Canadian shale gas assets is one energy trend that has spilled over into the new year.

Two foreign companies announced today major shale gas purchases. French oil giant Total paid $2.32 billion for a 25 percent stake in Ohio's Utica shale region from Chesapeake Energy. Separately, China Petroleum & Chemical Corp., known as Sinopec, announced it agreed to buy a 30 percent stake in five Devon Energy shale operations for about $2.2 billion.

Over at SmartPlanet's Intelligent Energy, we typically focus on "innovation" within the energy industry, oftentimes in the cleantech and renewables sectors. The shale-gas buying spree might not qualify under the conventional definition of the word. But it's certainly reshaping the industry in the United States.

Why does Chinese company like Sinopec so interested in U.S. gas shale anyway? It's not just about the gas; or in the oil. It's also technological know-how.

Sinopec and China-based CNOOC have aggressively sought out partnerships in an effort to gain the technology necessary to develop their own country's shale reserves. And for good reason.  The U.S. Energy Administration said in April 2011 report that China has the world's largest technically recoverable reserves of shale gas with an estimated 1,275 trillion cubic feet. The United States comes in at a distant second with 862 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable reserves.

Of course, "technically recoverable" ignores all other constraints, like the cost of retrieving the stuff. Which is why technological innovation is so valuable in the world of unconventional natural gas. Better, more advanced technology can bring a shale gas asset that would otherwise be too expensive to produce into more economical territory.

Total has partnered with Chesapeake in the past. The oil company bought a stake in Chesapeake's Barnett Shale field in Texas in 2010. Chespeake has sold stakes to other companies as well.

Deals like this make sense for U.S.-based gas producers like Chesapeake that hold a large number of drilling leases and acreage, but need the cash to develop the assets. With Total's investment Chesapeake can use the cash to move forward with development more quickly. The company can also use the funds to make good on its promise to cut long-term debt 25 percent in two years.

Other foreign shale deals in 2011:

  • India's GAIL bought a 20 percent stake (for $95 million) in Houston-based Carrizo Oil & Gas Inc.'s Eagle Shale Ford acreage. GAIL said at the time it would invest $300 million in the asset over the next five years.
  • UK mining company BHP Billiton bought U.S. shale gas producer Petrohawk Energy for $12.1 billion in July 2011.
  • Progress Energy Resources sold half of its working interest in three British Columbia shale properties to Petronas of Malaysia for $1.1 billion. The sale and a partnership with Petronas aims to help Progress finance the development of shale-gas reserves in western Canada.
  • Sasol, the South African motor fuels maker, paid $1.03 billion for a stake in Talisman Energy's Canadian shale-gas assets.

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