US oil supermajor Exxon Mobil is understood to have sounded out London-listed Gulf Keystone Petroleum (GKP) over a possible deal that could value the Kurdistan-focused group at around £7bn.
GKP has a market capitalisation of around £1.5bn and is listed on the junior Aim market, but its chief executive, Todd Kozel, believes the group could eventually go for double-figure billions. GKP is sitting on what is considered to be one of the world's great recent oil finds – Shaikan, about 50 miles north-west of Kurdistan's capital, Erbil – but the regional government is known to want a supermajor on board to properly fund and develop the field.
It is thought that the board would not accept the estimated £8-a-share that Exxon is considering and that a number of other companies, perhaps including China's Sinopec and Californian giant Chevron, are monitoring the situation. There is even some speculation that an informal four-way auction for GKP might be under way, while it is also believed that the company has spoken to at least two smaller businesses about potentially developing its assets in a joint venture.
Last month, it emerged that Exxon was the first of the oil industry's giants to enter Kurdistan, taking six licences. However, this has angered the government in Baghdad because there are old territorial disputes between Iraq and Kurdistan.
Baghdad had threatened to terminate Exxon's existing deal in southern Iraq and it had been reported that the US giant might reconsider its licences in Kurdistan. However, the lucrative potential of the Kurdistan fields means that analysts expect Exxon will pursue opportunities in the semi-autonomous region and may already have taken additional positions to those licences previously revealed.
There are suggestions that Exxon's interest in GKP was discussed at a board meeting 10 days ago and that initial soundings may have been taken at least six weeks ago. Last month, much of the oil world descended on Erbil for a conference that highlighted the extraordinary oil opportunities in Kurdistan, with Mr Kozel one of the key speakers.
It is believed that Mr Kozel would be happy to sell up soon and has even started mulling over his next venture. The American businessman is one of the most colourful figures in the City and has a base of devoted retail investors who are waiting for a takeover of GKP to make them rich.
GKP declined to comment. Exxon did not return calls.