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Statoil Aims to Preserve Leases as it Trims Marcellus Drilling

By John M. Biers Statoil ASA (STO, STL.OS) has reduced drilling in part of the Marcellus Shale formation in light of low natural gas prices and the difficulties facing Marcellus partner Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK), only drilling in some parts of the project to maintain leases. Statoil Executive Vice President Bill Maloney described current drilling decisions as a "real delicate balance" in light of weak natural gas prices. Chesapeake, operator of the Marcellus, has been cutting back operations due to the drop in gas prices. Many leases require companies to keep drilling or risk losing the acreage. "We're still drilling to hold leases," Mr. Maloney said just ahead of a capital markets day to discuss the Norwegian oil giant's North American operations. Mr. Maloney said the Marcellus operation had trimmed its total drilling rig fleet from more than 30 to 20 in light of lower natural gas prices. The project is steering more of its drilling to the southern part of the field, which has petroleum liquids in addition to natural gas, and less to the gas-rich northern part of the field. The formation stretches from upstate New York through Penn-syl-va-nia to West Vir-ginia and parts of Ohio. Mr. Maloney repeatedly praised Chesapeake as a "very good" operator. Asked if Statoil was interested in buying any of the assets the encumbered Chesapeake has put on the market, he said "never say never." But he added the company is interested in acquisitions where they can "get in from the ground floor." He said Statoil was on track to meet its long-term goal of raising North American production from the current level of 171,000 barrels of oil-equivalent per day to 500,000 barrels of oil-equivalent per day by 2020. The company has targeted the U.S. as a major growth area. Besides having an active onshore program, the company is also a major explorer in the Gulf of Mexico. Mr. Maloney said Statoil had bid on 32 additional blocks in the Gulf of Mexico at the lease sale to be held later Wednesday. He said the oil industry is "resilient" when it comes to low commodity prices, conceding that recent trends are worrisome. "Any oil and gas person has to be concerned," Mr. Maloney said, adding that oil companies also persevered through a weak market in 1998 when oil prices sank to $10 a barrel. "The industry has the capability of responding in a big way," he said. Write to John Biers at john.biers@dowjones.com

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