October 18, 2011 / 3:31 PM / 8 years ago

Analysis: Colombia's oil frontiers, the wild west of exploration

BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombia’s emergence from 50 years of guerrilla warfare has led to record high oil output that requires more investment in once off-limit areas to secure long-term production growth, experts said.

Colombian soldiers stand guard in Campo Rubiales field in Meta, eastern Colombia October 5, 2011. REUTERS/John Vizcaino

It is a tantalizing prospect for this commodity-rich frontier oil player, that easing security concerns could lead to greater riches in what is now a distant No. 4 crude producer in Latin America with 2 billion barrels in reserves.

Colombia still faces Latin America’s longest running guerrilla insurgency, but rebel forces have been severely curtailed since a 2002 U.S.-backed security crackdown opened up areas of the country.

Oil production has ramped up to a record 950,000 barrels per day as easing security concerns have allowed greater exploitation of heavy crude areas in addition to incremental production increases at existing fields.

The government says it is comfortable with its current reserves until around 2020, but the hunt is on in remote areas of this Andean nation to find large new reserves to sustain the increase in output.

“It’s a question of the reach of the Colombian state and of the security apparatus,” said RoseAnne Franco, an analyst with Wood Mackenzie, the energy research and consulting firm.

“Exploration activity in Colombia has been constrained by that and as there’s been improvement on that front you’re seeing exploration move into new areas,” she said.

So far the established Pacific Rubiales fields, in the top producing Meta region, have added the most to national output thanks to better security. At one point rebels had burned the field to the ground.

The Rubiales field has net reserves of 130 million barrels, the company said. Production there reached 138,000 bpd at the end of 2010 and was expected to reach 210,000 bpd by 2016.

“For the most immediate output potential and new finds, I think all the work is found in Meta and Vichada departments (regions), that is, in the heavy oil basin where we’ll most likely find more oil,” Energy Minister Mauricio Cardenas told Reuters in a recent interview.

Oil production should hit 1.1 million barrels of oil per day by the end of 2012, up from 1 million bpd expected in 2011, the government forecasts.

“In the short term, surely the good news for hydrocarbons will come from these areas and more in the medium term from areas such as Choco, Putumayo, Caqueta,” he said, referring to the underdeveloped regions, some of which still have a heavy presence of members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

“It’s possible there are reserves in these places where historically there hasn’t been or there’s been very little exploration,” Cardenas said.

Colombia consumes about half the oil it produces.

More under-developed oil areas such as Putumayo on the southern border, in the Putumayo-Caguan basin, the Pacific coast province of Choco and eastern parts of Vichada could see a rush for acreage by companies looking to cash in on Colombia’s newly attractive investment climate, experts say.

Analysts are hopeful the Putumayo-Caguan basin may hold oil because it is geologically similar to the established production area of the Llanos Basin in eastern Colombia.

In the meantime, squeezing more out of traditional oil areas such as Meta will likely produce much of the near-term growth in reserves.

“The traditional basins still have a lot more crude to be developed, that is the first wave to come,” said Armando Zamora, former head of the National Hydrocarbons Agency.

“More interesting for the future are the new basins. That is where there could be the next 5 billion (barrels) even up to 10 billion,” he said.

The oil sector has been the main driver behind foreign direct investment over the last decade, boosting economic growth and exports after years of declining output in the late 1990s.

BIRD WATCHING NOT RECOMMENDED

For all of Colombia’s security improvements, the state that was once considered failing is far from being declared completely safe for business.

Colombia’s army has a project to create a battalion to protect oil activities in Putumayo, which produces 4.1 percent of national output compared to Meta’s 47 percent, and is also home to an oil pipeline to the Pacific coast.

Zamora, who was the oil agency’s director for eight years, said the country is starting to see exploration results from Putumayo-Caguan and should begin to observe outcomes from eastern Vichada in five years while the Pacific coastal regions such as Choco were too difficult to predict.

“The eastern Putumayo is probably an area where we wouldn’t recommend a bird-watching trip yet,” Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co in a recent research note. “But if the industry is successful, as we expect, in finding additional heavy oil fields we believe this will be another region which will be sterilized from FARC insurgency as seen in the Llanos.”

Editing by Daniel Bases;editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid

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