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Analysts detect oil, gas M&A shift away from Permian

With acreage prices in the Permian Basin increasing at staggering rates, a geographical shift in oil and gas M&A focus may be underway as areas such as the Powder River Basin, the DJ Basin and Appalachia draw interest.

"The Powder River Basin has definitely taken a lot of attention the last six months," Chad Michael, managing director and head of upstream investment banking for Tudor Pickering Holt & Co., said at a KPMG conference in Houston. "The regulatory overlay there is a lot different than the Permian [due to much of the basin being on federal land], and in some ways it excites people because the big players aren't going to take it over."

Michael said gas plays like the Marcellus and Utica shales have drawn significant attention in spite of continued low market prices and supply outpacing demand.

"We've seen Appalachia getting some risk capital, in spite of all the gas supply that's available in the lower 48. Technically, there's some really fascinating things going on up there," he said. "There's still an interest in capitalizing some of the best gas companies with pretty good rates of return. There was $8 billion to $10 billion of Permian equity raised in 2016; there was $7 billion of Appalachian equity. The public market is telling you through at least 2016 they wanted to capitalize these companies to give them a chance."

Another play Michael said could become an attractive M&A environment is the SCOOP/STACK zone of central Oklahoma, where companies like Devon Energy Corp. and Marathon Oil Corp. have been actively accumulating acreage. "It does illustrate what we think is a big, pinned-up opportunity. I would absolutely keep your eye on some of that, as well," he said.

Brooks Shughart, a director at the private equity firm First Reserve, said his company is looking to invest with a "rifle shot" strategy, expanding in a particular area that it knows well and can capitalize on quickly. "It's very much a focused strategy in a small part of a basin, or at least a single basin," he explained.

Shughart agreed that the Rockies, home of the DJ Basin, and Appalachia are gaining popularity when it comes to M&A activity. "You're seeing the DJ Basin getting a lot of attention. I think the Powder River Basin is also getting a lot of attention, and it's mostly oil-based … but it's also largely federal. You can't run a 20-rig program on that," he said. "People looking at gas opportunities. We're seeing a lot of opportunities in the Haynesville and Appalachia."

While the Permian will continue to remain popular for producers, Shughart and Michael both said the prices associated with acreage in the area are motivating companies to look elsewhere. "Our perspective is you'll continue to see [M&A activity]; you'll see it shifting," he said. "The Permian has been pretty robust, but you'll see it shifting to other basins in the U.S."