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Since the turn of the year, energy stocks have become a put owner’s dream–what with the energy sector virtually generating the worst returns of all US sectors.

And the harder you look, the worse it gets, making it nearly impossible to find value in this gridlocked mess.

One of the industry’s popular benchmarks, the SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration ETF (XOP) has tanked 30% over the past year, badly underperforming the broader market all thanks to a perfect storm of supply and demand shocks coupled with slowing economies.

This comes to nobody’s surprise, considering that small-cap oil and gas stocks have higher leverage than large-caps. XOP invests in a lot of highly leveraged small-and mid-cap oil and gas companies in the exploration sector that tend to decline significantly on concerns about liquidity and debt repayments, but also bounce back quickly due to supply shocks like the Saudi Aramco drone attacks or, better still, a significant discovery.

Nothing quite tickles the fancy of energy investors like a giant oil or gas find.

But here’s the secret sauce: stocks of small-cap companies tend to enjoy serious leverage whenever they strike oil, whereas the heavyweights, well, not so much.

You don’t have to look very far for an example: shares of ExxonMobil Corp. (NYSE:XOM) are down more than 20% since the company announced a 14-strong string of good discoveries off the coast of Guyana in 2015, one of its best finds ever.

That’s because companies like Exxon have their fingers in too many pies, and their share prices depend on many variables. Junior explorers, however, tend to have a singular focus. You can buy them up for pennies, and when and if they strike oil, it’s a shareholder bonanza of big returns.

Granted, state-owned behemoths and giant energy companies tend to have more than their fair share of discoveries. But that does not in any way mean smaller companies have been missing out on the action–on the contrary, they have time and again showed up the big boys and earned their bragging rights in the arena, too.

Here are some of the biggest discoveries made or potential for discoveries that might be made by smaller oil and gas exploration companies:

#1 Biggest Oil Discovery in the Australian North West Shelf

For more than 15 years, oil exploration companies had been coming up empty in the once-fecund Australian North West Shelf. Nearly everybody had given up searching for liquids in the offshore block.

That is, until block partners Quadrant Energy and Carnarvon Petroleum hit paydirt in 2018 after making what is billed as “Australia’s most exciting oil find in decades”.

Quadrant and Carnarvon have emerged as some of the top wildcatters to watch in the region after uncovering a find containing some 171 million barrels of oil. You would have to go back to 1996 to find an oil discovery in the region above 100 million barrels.

Shares of Carnarvon ($555 million market cap) have jumped more than 150% since the discovery was announced, while Quadrant was acquired by Australian natural gas giant Santos Ltd (STOSF) in 2018.

Actually, these guys got lucky. The companies were prospecting for 545 bcf of gas but ended up with something far more valuable. After all, oil has a significantly lower risk profile than gas and does not require expensive infrastructure or gas contracts.

In other words, oil is both easier and faster to monetize than gas.

So, what are the expected pickings here?

Before the latest appraisal was carried out, Quadrant executive Fred Wehr had gushed:

“…the low case is solidly commercial, the mid-case is awesome and the upside is staggering.”

After the appraisal, Santos chief executive Kevin Gallagher revealed that the find was actually “bigger than expected”.

So, we can surmise that Quadrant thinks the find is awesome-to-staggering since it’s well above the base case estimate of 150 million barrels of oil.

#2 Namibia’s Eagle Ford

Reconnaissance Energy Africa (TSX-V: RECO, OTCMKTS:LGDOF) is the smallest of the three small-cap discoveries, with a market cap of only $39 million, with shares selling for under $0.80. Yet, it’s sitting on a shale basin that’s 25,000 square kilometers, similar in size to the Eagle Ford basin. Yes, that’s right: This tiny explorer just acquired a 90% exploration permit interest to the entire, 6.3-million-acre Kavango Basin in Namibia—Africa’s area which includes shale geology.

It’s quite unique for a company this small to have a basin this big, but while few have heard of the company, everyone in the business has heard of the geologist who examined the data on this basin. They’ve also heard of Recon’s CEO, Jay Park QC—the former director of Caracal Energy, which was acquired by giant Glencore in 2014 for $1.3 billion.

Bill Cathey is the geoscientist who looked at initial data. When the Company brought the magnetic survey data from Namibia’s Kavango Basin to Cathey, Cathey said the basis is a 30,000-foot sedimentary basin. He also said that all basins of this depth, anywhere else in the world, produce commercial hydrocarbons. Recon management dropped everything, so the story goes, got on a plane, and finalized the rights to the giant Kavango Basin.

So, now, tiny Reconnaissance is sitting on a basin similar in size to the Eagle Ford.

Reconnaissance has a 90% interest in a 4-year exploration license leading to a 25-year production license starting on commercial discovery.

The Kavango Basin is filled by the Karoo Supergroup of rocks, and it’s also been shown to have the same depositional environment as Shell’s Whitehill Permian shale play, part of the Karoo Supergroup to the south in South Africa.

Sproule–a tier 1 resource assessment company–estimated that Kavango has a potential 12 billion barrels of oil or 119 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That’s just for the shale, not counting any conventional potential.

The first wells are slated to be drilled in Q2 2020.

#3 Mid-Tier Mania

Eco Atlantic Oil and Gas Company Ltd (CVE:EOG) is a $104-million Canadian explorer whose shares popped 160% in August following the announcement of back-to-back oil discoveries in the fabled Guyana-Suriname Basin, where Exxon has made 14 discoveries in a short time span.

Shares of Eco’s partner in Guyana, Tullow Oil Plc (LON:TLW) with a $1.03-billion market cap, have been less impressive after rallying 20% in the same period. Tullow is bigger and there’s less leverage from one new discovery.

Eco has reported that Tullow Oil-operated Joe-1 has struck high-quality oil in the sandstone reservoir in offshore Guyana in an area believed to extend from Exxon’s Stabroek acreage. The Joe-1 discovery came just a month after the two successfully drilled Jethro-1 giving encouraging hints that they are right on the money.

Although the companies are yet to conduct a detailed evaluation of the Orinduik, it’s estimated to hold some 3.98 billion barrels of prospective resources, thus giving Eco ~600mln barrels for its 15% stake in the project.

This, however, might be just the beginning of good tidings for Eco shareholders as the company has announced that it has ample resources to drill even more wells.

#4 – Oil Majors Are Choosing Investments More Carefully

Africa has long been a hotspot for oil and gas majors, but things have gotten rocky in recent years, especially in Nigeria.

Nigeria is home to about 37 billion barrels in oil reserves. And while it’s got some 32 active oil rigs out there, only 81 wells were completed last year – down from 141 in 2014.

Since oil prices started tumbling in 2014, the government has been shaking down oil companies, with back taxes and new legislation. Now, it wants majors Chevron, Shell and French Total SA to fork out around $62 billion. It claims in was short-changed under a revenue-sharing agreement dating back to the 1990s.

Chevron (NYSE:CVX) is seeking to sell several Nigerian oilfields, and it isn’t the first: Exxon (NYSE:XOM) and Shell (NYSE:RDS.A) have both been reducing their footprint in the country.

Now, Nigeria is proposing new legislation that would increase taxation on the oil industry. The bill would add another 3-10 percent in royalty rates at oil prices between $50 and $80 per barrel. Nigeria’s current system gives Nigeria between 60 percent and 70 percent of all deepwater revenues, which includes taxes, royalties, along with state-run NNPC’s share of production.

While Nigeria has given majors some pushback, other countries have been a bit more accommodating. Take Suriname, for instance. It is quickly becoming a hotspot for ambitious majors looking to leverage its massive reserves.

Total (NYSE:TOT) recently announced a major oil discovery offshore Suriname with its partner, Apache (NYSE:APA). John J. Christmann, Apache CEO and President noted, “The well proves a working hydrocarbon system in the first two play types within Block 58 and confirms our geologic model with oil and condensate in shallower zones and oil in deeper zones. Preliminary formation evaluation data indicates the potential for prolific oil wells.”

British Petroleum (NYSE:BP) is another major eyeing “off-the-beaten-path” opportunities in Africa. While BP has some oil assets in the region, it is focusing heavily on renewable power generation and natural gas production. Recently, it began work on a project in Mauritania and Senegal. The company noted, “We see this as the start of a new chapter for Africa’s energy story.”

Originally published by James Burgess, Oilprice.com