There's little above the ground but there might be riches aplenty under it, writes Brian Robins.
The Northern Territory is the last frontier for oil and gas explorers, with virtually no population, markets or infrastructure. Yet a rush over the past few years has seen little-known explorers battle for room.
First in, best dressed - or, as the bizoids put it, early mover advantage - has been the driver, and it is a concept with which corporate adviser and company director Pat Elliott is very familiar .
He helped shareholders make millions from Eastern Star Gas, nursing it from unlisted hopeful over a decade ago to where it
was eventually sold to Santos for
Now Elliott, as well as a cast that could readily find a home in an episode of Dallas, is working
at this latest frontier in areas as inhospitable as the Tanami and Great Sandy deserts.
There's Richard Cottee, who made himself and his shareholders millions out of the $5 billion sale of Queensland Gas to British Gas a couple of years ago, the kernel asset in the British group's $20 billion gas export project which will soon be shipping gas.
He's now with Central Petroleum which has completed two landmark deals - one with Santos, which is looking for more gas for its Gladstone gas export project, and another with Total, which is to soon begin exporting gas from Darwin.
Also with a toe in the sand is one of the country's richest businessmen, Paul Fudge, via his Pangaea Resources, who recently picked up 10 per cent of AJ Lucas. This brings access to shale gas resources in Europe, Britain and Poland in particular.
And the line-up is even more colourful with Marc Bruner, who is from Texas and now lives in Switzerland. He reckons space he holds in the Beetaloo Basin in the territory's north-east is "bigger than the Gippsland Basin and Gorgon combined", as he told one investment seminar. Perhaps, but problems he's had funding his ambitions through his latest vehicle, Paltar Petroleum, have taken the shine off his optimism.
Bruner claims to have long experience in the oil and gas business in the US, especially the unconventional areas.
But the Texan's hype paled some time ago for Stephen Wee of Sinovus Mining. He stumped up $1 million for about 10 per cent of Paltar a few years back, thinking it a pretty good deal for his investors since he had his foot on more of the equity if Paltar had gone public by mid-2013.
"I'm very disappointed," a guarded Wee says. He hasn't heard from Bruner all year.
Recently revived talk of a fund-raising by Paltar via Morgan Stanley has so far turned to nought.
A recent investor presentation by Paltar claims the "Beetaloo basin Proterozoic shales are ideal for commerciality", pointing out it will cost about $11.80 a barrel to transport any liquids to Darwin.
And tough markets have also weighed on Elliott's optimism for Tamboran Resources, forcing him to shelve a planned $150 million raising - although this could get away later next year. It is now working to boost the value of its assets before going public.
He recently sold a 14 per cent slice of Tamboran to Santos. Along with tenements in NT, it also holds acreage in Ireland and Poland.
Its deal with Santos covers acreage in the Beetaloo, about 500 kilometres south-east of Darwin, which is virtually unexplored. Pacific Oil & Gas drilled 11 wells between 1989 and 1998, all of which showed the presence of oil and gas. Similarly with drilling in the early 1980s by Moonie Oil in the Ngalia Basin, which lies in the Great Sandy Desert on acreage now held by Tamboran.
Mid-year, US independent Hess Corporation exited after spending $US80 million, which would have given it a 62.5 per cent equity in Beetaloo Basin acreage held by Falcon, a British-listed explorer which has Bruner as a shareholder.
Depending on who you talk to, Hess walked away due either to poor exploration results, or for internal corporate reasons. Luckily for management, but not shareholders, Falcon had raised £17 million ($29 million) for a Britain and Ireland listing just before Hess quit. In its prospectus, Falcon claimed reserves of 162 trillion cubic feet of gas and 21,345 million barrels of oil on its acreage, but the status of its plays are up in the air.
Along with Santos moving in, bulls on the region's prospects point to Norway's Statoil as indicative of the region's prospects. Statoil has moved into the Territory for the first time after looking at several hundred basins globally. It is working on acreage held along the Queensland border by Canadian outfit PetroFrontier.
Armour Energy which has a sharemarket worth of just $70 million, may be the most advanced of the hopefuls in the Territory and could be producing some gas over the next few years. But apart from sales prospects in Darwin and Gove it is a very long way to east coast markets, which may limit commercial prospects.
Still, if early success is measured by acreage then one of the biggest stake grubbers in Australia is the privately owned Australian Oil and Gas. It has close to 300,000 square kilometres - nearly a fifth of the Territory.
The company's controlling shareholder, Jerry Ren, says he will go public "in either Singapore or Canada" by raising a "couple of hundred" million dollars while touting recent talks with UBS and Credit Suisse on the matter.
Its main deal so far is in the Wiso Basin, along the WA border, where he has done a farm-in deal with Blue Energy over 111,887 square kilometres.
Ren reckons that as a sedimentary basin, the chances the Wiso hosts extensive conventional oil and gas, rather than shale oil or gas, are high. "That is my belief," he said.
Australian Oil and Gas's Rod Illingworth recently told the Northern Territory News, "Once you get energy, you get industry. There will be a hydrocarbon superhighway straight out to Asia", even though the company has yet to find anything. Illingworth holds a quarter of AOG's capital.
The lack of exploration in the Tanami hasn't dimmed the interest of former Santos boss John Ellice-Flint who chairs Blue Energy, a $100 million hopeful working with AOG. "It's got the ingredients to make a hydrocarbon province," he says.