PARIS French oil group Total SA (TOTF.PA) is plowing $2.3 billion into the development of U.S. shale gas reserves in Ohio in the latest example of global energy companies piling into burgeoning new energy sources.
In a deal with Chesapeake Energy Corp (CHK.N), which the U.S. group announced in November without identifying its partners, Total will take a 25 percent stake in a joint venture covering the Utica Shale area of eastern Ohio.
North America has seen a boom in investment in energy resources such as shale gas in recent years, raising the prospect of the United States reducing its dependence on imported energy. But the process used to access these resources -- commonly known as fracking -- has become controversial because of environmental concerns.
Under the terms of the deal, Total paid $610 million to Chesapeake and $290 million to a U.S.-based group called EnerVest, the other partner in the venture. Chesapeake will receive another $1.42 billion contribution to drilling and well-completion costs, expected by the end of 2014, it said.
"This is consistent with our strategy to develop positions in unconventional plays with large potential and, in this case, with value predominantly linked to (the) oil price," said Total Exploration and Production President Yves-Louis Darricarrere.
Total, which previously had a joint venture with Chesapeake in the Barnett Shale area in Texas, has said it is looking to boost its position in U.S. shale basins that have crude oil or natural gas with a high liquids content, making them more valuable than dry gas.
Contents of the latest joint venture were disclosed in November, but at the time Chesapeake, the second-biggest U.S. producer of natural gas, did not reveal the identity of its partners.
Oil and natural gas can now be extracted from shale by drilling miles-deep wells and injecting thousands of gallons of water as well as chemicals to flush out natural gas deposits trapped between layers of rock.
Chesapeake is an aggressive buyer of land in the new U.S. shale formations, believed to hold massive reserves of natural gas and oil. But its appetite for new property has left the company too debt-laden to pay for drilling and forced it to attract joint venture partners to help fund development costs.
Thin profitability, due to low U.S. gas prices, has not diminished foreigners' enthusiasm for the controversial energy resource.
Devon Energy (DVN.N) said on Tuesday that China's Sinopec (0386.HK) will pay $2.2 billion in exchange for a third of Devon's holdings in five different shale gas regions in the United States.
Statoil (STL.OL) last October paid $4.4 billion for Brigham Exploration BEXP.O to boost its unconventional energy resources in the United States, one of its key growth areas, while India's Reliance (RELI.NS) is also looking to invest more in the U.S. shale gas industry.
The latest venture with Total covers about 619,000 net acres, of which 77,000 were contributed by Houston-based EnerVest, Chesapeake said.
"We believe the Utica acreage is a good asset for Total," analysts at brokerage Bernstein wrote in a research note. "We continue to believe that long-term unconventional assets such as shale oil and gas acreage can deliver stable production and increasingly positive cashflows, given that we expect the oil price to remain high in the long term."
At brokerage CA Cheuvreux, analyst Dominique Patry wrote: "There is no production to date but 13 wells have been drilled across the acreage with very promising results seen from each well in terms of productivity and liquid content."
Concerns about water table pollution, tremors and gas leakage are slowing the expansion of shale gas, but with the biggest oil and gas reserve holders limiting foreign investment in their energy sectors, the big Western oil and gas companies are increasingly focusing on OECD countries such as the United States and Australia.
Yet the technique remains controversial.
The French government in October cancelled three shale gas exploration permits, including one that was granted to Total, after it banned the use of the drilling technique, called hydraulic fracturing.
Shares in Total, which also has shale gas exploration permits in Poland, Denmark and Argentina, were little changed, down 0.3 percent at 39.885 euros by midday. Chesapeake's shares rose 82 cents, or 3.7 percent, to $23.13 in early New York Stock Exchange trading.
Jefferies advised Chesapeake in the transaction. Total declined to disclose its advisers.
(Reporting By Michael Erman; Editing by David Holmes and Maureen Bavdek)