Oil expo thrives amid weakening economy

Oil expo thrives amid weakening economy

( AP )- Recession? What recession? When thousands of wheeler-dealers gather downtown this week to buy, sell and trade oil and gas projects, they'll be ready to shell out millions of dollars, perhaps tens of millions.

The focus will be on high oil prices - good for them, bad for many consumers - not a weakening economy. With a barrel of oil selling for about $90, or 50 percent higher than a year ago, they say this is no time to be idle, watching competitors drill wells and invest in land with the potential to become huge reservoirs of crude oil or natural gas.

"I was doing this in the late '90s, and I know we sold some heavy oil for $6 a barrel," said Rick Mullins, the president of a small, privately held exploration and production company near Fort Worth. "Now, we're certainly in a time of plenty. The bad thing about the oil industry, I have to say, is it seems to do best when everyone else is doing the worst."

Don't expect much moaning at this year's North American Prospect Expo, or NAPE, an annual marketplace to pitch and ponder prospective deals that can include a couple of acres ripe for drilling - or so someone thinks - to mature oil fields with multiple wells.

The idea is for businessmen like Mullins, who might have a lease on a field in east Texas he wants to drill but not enough money to do it, to network with investors who have money to spend and are willing to take a gamble.

Transactions can range from less than $50,000 to $10 million and more.

"It's a way for guys with ideas and no money to meet guys with money and no ideas," said David Purcell, an analyst at Tudor Pickering Holt & Co. Securities Inc.

This year's expo is expected to attract 15,000 participants, the most ever. That's an increase of 70 percent from just five years ago, when oil was selling for roughly $30 a barrel.

More than 900 companies are expected to have a presence - up from 88 when NAPE began in 1993 - the bulk of them small independents like Mullins' outfit. Independents concentrate solely on exploration and production, forgoing refining and marketing operations.

But analysts say the deals they make at NAPE are significant, considering that independents - primarily based in North America - produce 68 percent of U.S. oil and 82 percent of U.S. natural gas, according to the Independent Petroleum Association of America. By way of contrast, Exxon Mobil, the world's largest publicly traded oil company, produces 3 percent of the world's oil.

"These are a lot of small guys trying to get money, or partners with money, to help them drill," Purcell said. "Some are looking for the next big play. But it's gotten to the point where you feel if you're not there, you're going to miss something."

The concept is fairly simple. Most companies have booths on the convention center floor, where they tout projects by displaying maps, geologic data, financial details and other information. They can range from the major independents like Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to mom-and-pop outfits with a handful of employees.

Potential investors drop by, ask questions, take notes - sort of like shopping for a new vehicle.

"You go by, you meet somebody, you get a phone call a week later and the next thing you know you're in a deal, you've got a partner," said Robin Forte, NAPE's executive vice president.

Mullins said his company, Mullins & White Exploration, has done about $100 million of business at NAPE in the past few years - both finding investors for its own endeavors and investing in others. He said his 2007 revenue will be around $20 million.

Mullins acknowledged the setting can be a bit overwhelming, with more than 1,500 booths and other deals going down in aisles, corners and nearby bars and restaurants.

"We've become more successful on the buying side by going in with specific ideas in mind," he said. "It's almost like going to the supermarket. You don't look at every product on every aisle. You go knowing what you need."

Ron Koehler, the owner of Condor Petroleum Inc. in Tioga, N.D., said he now hires two former exploration managers to attend NAPE with him, needing the extra expertise to roam the floor and peruse deals.

He operates about 50 wells in the Tioga area, where the oil business dates to the 1950s, and spent $3.5 million last year investing in bits and pieces of other projects, most found at NAPE.

Koehler said he'd like to invest a similar amount this year, but he has some reservations. The biggest is the prospect of greater control by Democrats in Washington, which he says could mean more taxes on his and other oil companies.

"Do I want to extend myself even further, making interest payments on all this money, if I'm going to get taxed more heavily?" Koehler said. "There are so many wonderful prospects out there, but I'm nervous about the political end of it."

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