This column was originally published on RealMoney on Aug. 26 at 1:00 p.m. EDT. It's being republished as a bonus for TheStreet.com readers.

Altough a number of companies are fighting for the title of King of the Barnett Shale, chatter suggests there may be a new Chief coming to the region.

One of the trendy North American natural gas plays, the Fort Worth Basin in North Texas (also known as the Barnett Shale), is sizzling with drilling activity as large independents like

XTO Energy

( XTO),

Devon Energy

(DVN) - Get Report

,

EOG Resources

(EOG) - Get Report

and

Chesapeake Energy

(CHK) - Get Report

work with new horizontal drilling and fracturing techniques to find gas in tight rock formations.

Now, one of the majors appears to have an interest. At a recent gathering of industry executives in Houston, murmurs resurfaced that

Royal Dutch Shell

( RD) is looking for opportunities in the Barnett. Shell's reserve challenges and quest for additional natural gas assets makes the Barnett an intriguing candidate: an easy-to-understand play, relatively easy drilling and a good group of peers from which to learn the intricacies of the play.

The attractiveness of the Barnett lies in the prolific nature of the wells and their attractive economics. To date, there is about 1.2 billion cubic feet per day produced from more than 3,800 wells, or about 300 thousand cubic feet per day per well. Wells are drilled between 4,000 and 11,000 feet at a cost between $400,000 and $2.6 million per well. Both vertical and newer horizontal drilling is taking place in the region.

Chief Candidate

Although there are a number of ways Shell might enter the Barnett, one option would be through the purchase of a company focused on the Barnett Shale. One option would be privately held

Chief Oil & Gas

, a Dallas-based company with more than 200,000 acres in the Barnett Shale.

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While sources close to Shell's decision-making process indicate that no decision has been made, there are projections that Chief could command a price of nearly $1.2 billion, or roughly $6,000 per acre. In addition to acreage, Chief has production north of 100 million cubic feet of natural gas per day and, according to its press releases, has six rigs under contract and more than 100 wells currently producing in the region.

Other players in the region, such as XTO and Chesapeake, have focused on growing their assets in the region in recent months. And smaller companies like

Carrizo Oil & Gas

(CRZO) - Get Report

have been quickly growing their acreage bases through new leases. In addition, companies like

Quicksilver

(KWK)

and

Infinity

(IFNY)

have been active in both the core and outlying counties in the region.

While there are no guarantees that Shell will actually pull the trigger on a deal in the region, should the major choose the Barnett as a new exploration focus, through Chief or another player, it would quickly get investors' attention. And that would be likely to benefit all the players in the Barnett, especially smaller companies with acquisition potential.

In short, Shell's next move may make the Barnett Shale the new Chief on natural gas investors' radar.

Please note that due to factors including low market capitalization and/or insufficient public float, we consider Infinity to be a small-cap stock. You should be aware that such stocks are subject to more risk than stocks of larger companies, including greater volatility, lower liquidity and less publicly available information, and that postings such as this one can have an effect on their stock prices.

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Christopher S. Edmonds is vice president and director of research at Pritchard Capital Partners, a New Orleans energy investment firm. He is based in Atlanta. At time of publication, neither Edmonds nor his firm held positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. While Edmonds cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he appreciates your feedback;

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