Wildcatters Still a Gamble for Investors Despite Oil's Rise

(Bloomberg) -- Higher oil prices may seem like the pot of black gold at the end of the rainbow for wildcat explorers in frontier plays. But even with talk that prices of $100 a barrel could again be in sight, investors are wary before taking the gamble.

With crude above $80 a barrel small explorers are taking chances even when the price of failure is high. But investors have lost patience with risk-taking companies in recent years, says Anish Kapadia, an analyst for Hannam & Partners LLP.

“There were a lot more funds that would hold these stocks five-plus years ago, for example a lot were held in the U.S.,” Kapadia said. “But the size of these companies and lack of trading liquidity precludes many investors from holding them.”

Wildcatters Still a Gamble for Investors Despite Oil's Rise

The latest example of the pitfalls for investors -- even with crude at a four-year high -- is Chariot Oil & Gas Ltd. This company was testing a hunch with its well over 4,000 meters deep offshore Namibia -- a frontier play that has caught the interest of majors BP Plc and Exxon Mobil Corp, but remains largely unproven. The results didn’t support the hunch which was “very disappointing,” Chief Executive Officer Larry Bottomley said in an interview.

Chariot stock fell as much as 70 percent on Thursday after the results announcement. Bottomley tried to ease investor concern, saying the company is fully funded to make progress on assets in Morocco and Brazil. Analysts were less enthused.

“This failure is testament to the risk of wildcat exploration in relatively undrilled basins,” Cantor analysts said in a note. “Whether investors would be willing to fund any further wildcat exploration by this company is the remaining question, and we think the track record of failure is likely to make survival difficult.”

The company drilled the Namibia well because rig rates were low and it had equity financing, but it will now return to its regular method of forming partnerships, Bottomley said. “We would’ve never drilled the well if it would’ve destroyed the company,” he said.

Namibia has attracted explorers on a bet that its coastal shelf has similarities to Brazil, where the offshore Tupi find in 2007 was the largest in the Americas in three decades.

Chariot has become one of the most committed explorers in Namibia. Two wells that missed in 2012 sank the stock almost 90 percent. Management changed tack a couple of years later, dropping a license and then getting it back. That made the company a “fast follower,” leaving others to take on the drilling risk, Bottomley said at the time.

It then broadened its portfolio, planning wells off Mauritania and Morocco, where they fell short of expectations again in April.

Risky Business

Even for companies which strike oil or gas, such as Cobalt International Energy Inc. as part of a venture in Angola, the end result can still be bankruptcy.

Investors have been put off in general from funding small explorers after a series of failures, David Round, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets, said. There will always be room for them, even to go to frontier regions, “but we’re really looking for other industry players to fund these types of things,” he said.

Cove Energy Ltd is one of the success stories for small explorers, especially in Africa. In 2009 it acquired an 8.5 percent stake in an exploration block operated by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. shortly before a major discovery by the operator. The company was subsequently sold for almost $2 billion.

“I think everyone hopes to be the next Cove, but the only one that really offers something like that is the Guyana blocks,” said Ashley Kelty, a Cantor analyst. “That’s the closest to Mozambique that we’ve had for a long time.”

Tullow Oil Plc has stakes in Guyana, which is why shareholders could shake off the well they missed in Namibia last month, he said. Eco Atlantic Oil & Gas Ltd. also has stakes in both plays and its stock is up 80 percent this year. Hannam analysts are watching for the appraisal of Exxon’s Hammerhead discovery in Guyana, which extends onto Eco’s block as a possible “catalyst” for the company.

Chariot will now face increasingly impatient investors. In a September results call, Bottomley was already asked if he could understand their frustration as wells continued to miss.

“A dry well is just as painful to us,” he said. “We’ve invested our time, talent and effort and it’s something that we’re very close to, and so, yes, we do -- we do -- we do feel that -- that pain.”

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