By Tom Hutchinson
NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- A seldom mentioned emerging-market country is nurturing a future oil giant.
Colombia is a growing and dynamic economy. Some people think of Colombia as a violent and lawless place dominated by drug cartels, or perhaps even confuse it with socialist Venezuela. But, the truth is that Colombia has come a long way. (Read Forget BRIC: Buy These Emerging Economies Instead.)
After nearly 30 years of drug-related violence, a new pro-business government and a U.S.-supported crackdown have vastly improved conditions in the past decade. Since 2002, terrorist acts are down 84%, kidnappings have dropped 88% and the homicide rate is the lowest in 22 years. Colombia's crime rate is now lower than that of many U.S. cities.As a result, Colombia is attracting more investors and domestic spending is on the rise. Its gross domestic product grew 5% in the first half of 2010 (compared with 1.6% in the second quarter in the U.S.), and the stock market has reacted. The Colombian exchange traded fund Global X/InterBolsa FTSE Colombia 20 ETF (GXG) has soared 48% so far this year and was the top-performing country-specific ETF for the year as of July 30. Colombia is rich in natural resources, including one of the largest deposits of oil and gas in Latin America. There are just two Colombian companies trading on the New York Stock Exchange, but luckily, one of them has been on fire. Ecopetrol (EC - Get Report) is Colombia's largest integrated oil company, and is also the fourth-biggest oil major in Latin America. The company focuses on exploration and production, but is also involved in refining and transportation. About 90% of the firm is owned by the state. Ecopetrol explores for oil and gas across Colombia and is expanding internationally through exploration partnerships in Brazil, Peru, and the United States (Gulf of Mexico). As of the end of the first quarter, Ecopetrol had reserves of 1.9 billion barrels of oil equivalent (BOE), 71% of which is oil and 29% gas. The company's production for the quarter was 83% oil and 17% gas. The company, like the country, is looking to the future. Ecopetrol has hyper-aggressive plans to expand and become a major international oil giant. It plans to invest a whopping $80 billion on expansion in the next 10 years and forecasts dramatic production and reserve gains in a relatively short period. The company is targeting daily production growth of 27% in 2011 (from spring 2010 levels) and reserve growth of 68% by 2015 and more than 200% by 2020.