Repsol YPF on Wednesday raised the estimate for potentially recoverable oil and gas in its part of Argentina's "Vaca Muerta" (Dead Cow) basin to the equivalent of nearly 23 billion barrels, indicating a total shale deposit big enough to enable Argentina to challenge the United States in non-conventional petroleum production.
But it cautioned that exploiting the formation would need a huge expansion in Argentina's oil and gas industry, requiring thousands of wells, hundreds of drilling rigs and a national push to attract the necessary talent, equipment and investment at a time when other countries are competing to increase energy resources.
The company's shares traded on the Buenos Aires stock exchange jumped 8 percent after the announcement.
Repsol YPF SA, a majority-Spanish-owned company, issued the statement from Madrid shortly after its president, Antonio Brufau, returned from a series of closed-door meetings in Argentina with government officials who have been pressuring the company to increase exploration and development.
The pro-government newspaper Pagina12 in Buenos Aires said Repsol YPF has been paying out more in dividends than it has made in profits in Argentina, and suggested President Cristina Fernandez might consider nationalizing the company's Argentine operations so the money could instead be used to increase Argentina's energy capacity.
Juliette Kerr, a Latin America energy analyst at IHS in London, discounted the possibility of nationalization, saying Argentina can't afford a buyout. The idea was never openly endorsed by Fernandez or her Cabinet ministers.
Company spokesmen and government officials declined to comment on the talks this week.
But Wednesday's statement, made as a filing to Spain's securities regulator, provided a stark analysis of Repsol YPF's commitment to Argentina and how much would have to change for the country to realize its energy dreams.
"If exploration proves successful in the Vaca Muerta formation and immediate intensive development began in the area, in 10 years its capacity could double Argentina's existing gas and oil production. This would require a vast investing effort that would reach $25 billion per year in order to develop all the existing prospective resources," it said.
Repsol YPF said in November that it had discovered 927 million barrels of recoverable oil and natural gas in the shale deposit. But even 23 billion barrels ranks below Brazil's recent deep-sea oil discoveries, which experts estimated at up to 55 billion barrels, or the 296 billion barrels of proven crude reserves that Venezuela claims.
Argentina currently has only 80 drilling rigs and would need at least 100 more, along with upgrades in all sectors of its oil and gas industry, to capitalize on the potential of the deposit in western Neuquen province, the company said.
Repsol YPF currently is the leader in exploring in this area, having invested $300 million in exploration, mapping and initial development, but has claims on less than half of the formation, which stretches over 7.4 million acres. Many other companies would need to make substantial investments for the area to achieve its potential, it said.
So far, only a tiny fraction of the Vaca Muerta foundation has been developed, producing 700,000 barrels as of December, and the statement suggested that Brufau didn't give in to the pressure for huge new investments right away.
"The company aims to drill 20 wells in 2012, solely and jointly with several partners, to continue investigating prospective resources," it said.
The statement suggested international investors may be holding back until they have confidence that Argentina will guarantee government policies and labor unrest won't get in the way of eventual profits. Instead, Argentina has been withdrawing energy exploration subsidies, dealing with a punishing oil workers strike and making it more difficult for multinational companies to move their gains out of the country.
(This version CORRECTS second reference to 23 billion barrels as Repsol YPF's share, rather than estimate of overall deposit.)