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Most analysts believe that the ExxonMobil acquisition of XTO Energy (XTO) represents a dramatic shift in strategy by the premier exploration and production (E&P) company, and a validation of shale plays. It is neither. The move represents a considered and deliberate choice that acknowledges diminished opportunities for the oil giant to add and replace reserves. The acquisition acknowledges that natural gas is the only viable short-term solution to North America’s energy needs, and that demand will grow. It implies that ExxonMobil believes that higher natural gas prices will be part of that energy future. It presumes that the company can improve on the flawed manufacturing model that has dominated the way that U.S. shale plays have been pursued.
ExxonMobil’s acquisition of XTO only seems dramatic to those who have not paid attention to the company’s strategy and change in project mix over the past decade. Its portfolio consisted of 75% unconventional resources before the XTO acquisition (Figure 1) with a strong emphasis on tight, acid and sour gas, LNG, and heavy oil projects. Tim Cejka, President of ExxonMobil Exploration Company, told The Wall Street Journal last year that his company has been “bullish” on shale plays since 2003 (Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2009). David Rosenthal, ExxonMobil Vice President of Investor Relations recently said, “It’s not a strategic shift” (Houston Chronicle, February 2, 2010).
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