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ExxonMobil bets big on southeast New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — ExxonMobil could soon become one of southeast New Mexico’s top oil producers following its announcement Tuesday of a $5.6 billion deal to acquire 275,000 acres of leases in the Permian Basin.

“With this acquisition, ExxonMobil will challenge the largest-producing companies now operating in New Mexico,” said Daniel Fine, associate director of the New Mexico Center for Energy Policy at New Mexico Tech in Socorro. “The ExxonMobil acquisition means more drilling rigs and workers will be back in action, likely by the end of this year.”

Fine said the deal is a huge move by a company that’s been largely operating outside the United States. “It’s great for New Mexico. … It shows New Mexico is sitting on one of the most-significant oil fields in the country.”

New Mexico was hit hard when oil prices crashed in 2014, sending the industry into a downturn that continues today. The state lost between 12,000 and 18,000 direct and indirect jobs in the bust, and lawmakers face large budget deficits because of the loss of oil- and gas-related revenue.

ExxonMobil is buying access to about 3.4 billion barrels of oil equivalent reserves in the New Mexico side of the Delaware Basin, an oval-shaped shale-rock formation within the Permian that protrudes from southwest Texas northward into Lea and Eddy counties in New Mexico. That area has become one of the country’s most-prolific oil and gas zones, producing some of the highest returns for oil firms operating in the U.S. today.

The deal nearly doubles ExxonMobil’s total holdings in the Permian to about 6 billion barrels of oil equivalent hydrocarbons.

“This acquisition strengthens ExxonMobil’s significant presence in the dominant U.S. growth area for onshore oil production,” ExxonMobil CEO Darren W. Woods said in a news release.

ExxonMobil will likely begin drilling into its new holdings fairly quickly, because it’s using company stock for most of the deal, Fine said. It’s paying $5.6 billion in shares to the Bass family of Fort Worth, Texas, to acquire the Bass family’s lease acreage and operating entities, plus about $1 billion more in cash payments starting in 2020.

Oil rigs in the Loco Hills field in Eddy County, near Artesia, one of the most active regions of the Permian Basin. (AP Photo/Jeri Clausing)

Oil rigs in the Loco Hills field in Eddy County, near Artesia, one of the most active regions of the Permian Basin. (AP Photo/Jeri Clausing)

ExxonMobil will need to show a return on the investment, because issuing new stock for the deal dilutes the stock of other shareholders.

“I would expect them to move with considerable speed,” Fine said. “The company has to perform. It can’t approach this as a holding action or reserve position, because it has to show results to shareholders.”

ExxonMobil is the largest publicly traded oil and gas company in the world with $16.2 billion in revenue in 2015.

The deal ranks as the largest such oil and gas acquisition in the U.S. since the industry decline began in 2014, according to the Houston-based oil and gas research firm PLS cited in a CNBC report.

But it’s just the latest in a number of large-scale acquisitions in the Delaware Basin, a part of the Permian, where operators are using modern techniques of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to crack open layers of tough shale rock that they couldn’t reach before. The gushers that spring from those wells make the expensive drilling methods more cost-effective than in other basins, allowing companies to earn good returns even with today’s depressed prices.

In addition, most of the gas and other hydrocarbons that gush up from wells alongside oil are liquids that earn better prices than the dry natural gas being produced in other basins, making operations there even more profitable.

Other firms have also acquired major lease acreage in the Delaware in recent months.

In September, Houston-based EOG Resources Inc. paid $2.5 billion to acquire Yates Petroleum Corp., giving it access to extensive holdings in Lea and Eddy counties. In November, Concho Resources paid $430 million for access to about 24,000 acres in Lea County sections of the Delaware.

Delaware Basin. (Cathryn Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

Delaware Basin. (Cathryn Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

On Monday, Noble Energy also paid $3.2 billion to buy Clayton Williams Energy, which is active in the Texas side of the Delaware Basin.

The latest acquisition gives ExxonMobil a long-term stake in New Mexico, because it will take many years to fully explore and exploit the vast oil deposits in the Delaware, said John Yates Jr. of Yates Petroleum.

“It could be a long-term gold mine for ExxonMobil, but it will take time to develop,” Yates said. “It won’t happen overnight.”