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This Nov. 6, 2013 file photo shows a Whiting Petroleum Co. pump jack pulls crude oil from the Bakken region of the Northern Plains near Bainville, Mont.Matthew Brown/The Associated Press

A decision by Whiting Petroleum Corp., the largest producer in North Dakota's Bakken shale basin, to put itself up for sale looks to be the first tremor in a potential wave of consolidation as $50-a-barrel prices undercut companies with heavy debt and high costs.

For the first time since wildcatters such as Harold Hamm of Continental Resources Inc. began extracting significant amounts of oil from shale formations, acquisition prospects from Texas to the Great Plains are looking less expensive.

Buyers are ultimately after reserves, the amount of oil a company has in the ground based on its drilling acreage. The value of about 75 shale-focused U.S. producers based on their reserves fell by a median of 25 per cent by the end of 2014 compared to 2013, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That's opening up new opportunities for bigger companies with a better handle on their debt, said William Arnold, a former executive at Royal Dutch Shell PLC.

"In this market, there are whales and there are fishes, and the whales are well armed," said Mr. Arnold, who also worked as an energy-industry banker and now teaches at Rice University in Houston. "There are some very vulnerable little fishes out there trying to survive any way they can."

Smaller producers with significant debt that depend on higher prices to make money are the most likely early targets for buyers such as Exxon Mobil Corp. or Chevron Corp., companies that have bided their time for years as the value of some shale fields soared to $38,000 (U.S.) an acre from $450 just a few years earlier.

The market crash is creating "a consolidation game," Timothy Leach, Concho Resources Inc.'s chief executive said on a Feb. 26 call with investors.

"It's harder to be a small company today than it has been in the past."

In the preplunge days, acquisitions were dominated by foreign buyers overpaying to get a seat at the shale boom table.

Now, an expected surge of deals is more likely to feature fire sales by companies unable to pay expenses, falling asset prices and a widening division between the haves and have-nots.

Sellers will be companies such as Whiting, handicapped by heavy debt and lacking the cash reserves or hedging contracts that would have provided some insulation from the market crash. Among the three biggest producers in North Dakota – Whiting, Continental and Oasis Petroleum Inc. – the value per-barrel of reserves has fallen by about half since June, the data show, meaning those reserves would cost a buyer half what they were worth eight months ago.

Exxon is the only major oil company with a triple-A credit rating, which gives it unparalleled borrowing power for financing deals.

More importantly, the company has $226-billion of its own shares stashed away from buybacks that it could use to buy other companies. That was how Exxon paid for Mobil in 1999 and XTO Energy Inc. in 2010.

Chevron holds $43-billion of its own shares in its treasury alongside $13-billion in cash, and the company has ample ability to borrow.

An analysis by Wolfe Research LLC's Paul Sankey found the likeliest takeover candidates among major U.S. and Canadian producers included Continental, Apache Corp., Devon Energy Corp. and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. Those companies are big enough to help a buyer such as Exxon gain oil reserves at a cheaper price compared with peers, Mr. Sankey wrote Feb. 2.

Whiting has reached out to potential buyers, including Statoil ASA, about a sale, people familiar with the matter said this week.

The Denver-based company would be an attractive target for Exxon, Chevron or Hess Corp., all of which have operations in North Dakota and would benefit from scaling up, according to a Bank of America Corp. note to investors Monday.

Spokesmen for Exxon, Statoil, Chevron and Hess declined to comment on their potential interest in buying shale companies. Spokesmen for Anadarko, Apache and Devon declined to comment about their interest in selling.