I’m glad my purchases don’t excite such scrutiny.

But then, I don’t make a habit of dropping US $41 billion on a regular basis, either.

That’s the price ExxonMobil has offered to pay for XTO, a company active in the unconventional shale plays in North America. The purchase is subject to XTO shareholder approval and regulatory issues but has been agreed to by both boards of directors.

It’s always amusing to watch the pendulum swing back and forth in this industry. Plays onshore North America have been, for the most part, the playground of the independents for several years as the majors went offshore and overseas seeking the remaining elephants. Through the patience of companies like Mitchell Energy (now part of Devon), the elephants in our own backyard finally began to give up their treasures. And while Exxon was developing its deep, challenging fields offshore West Africa and elsewhere in the world, US independents were in the frenzy of a land grab in plays like the Barnett, the Haynesville, the Fayetteville, the Marcellus, and a host of others.

With all of that prospective acreage already leased, what’s a major to do? Forget the acreage – just buy the independent instead.

This in and of itself is not that unusual a move – majors have been buying independents, and independents have been buying each other, for years. What makes it noteworthy is the fact that a company like Exxon, which doesn’t exactly act on capricious whims, is entering the unconventional world. These plays have had tongues wagging in recent months as some question their long-term profitability and others point to them as being too prolific and smothering natural gas prices in the process.

Now the tongues are flapping incessantly, partly because an Exxon exec can barely sneeze without making the news and mostly because this could be the start of the majors flocking back to North America to share in the fun. Some major names – Apache, Devon, Chesapeake – could perhaps become tantalizing tidbits if the likes of Shell, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips decide to take the bait.

Simmons & Co. sees the move as an indication that Exxon is bullish on natural gas in the long term since management has admitted that the strategic benefits of the transaction may take as long as 30 years to fully vest. Analysts point out that the purchase price is roughly $12 billion more than the cost of the Exxon shares used in the deal. This suggests, they say, “a) quite a lot of synergistic value creation or b) a long-term view of natural gas as a growth fuel possibly supporting the narrowing in the natgas/crude price divergence (in our view, XOM likely assumed both).” The move also indicates Exxon’s assumption that natural gas demand will outpace oil and coal, they say. “As the majors tend to be somewhat agnostic with respect to which hydrocarbon they exploit (at least between crude and natural gas), increasing opportunities for unconventional natural gas investment and the prospect of above-average demand growth from the hydrocarbon with the lowest inherent carbon footprint appear to make the idea of adding to natural gas resources more affordable than crude at today’s levels.”

They add that Exxon’s participation in the LNG markets may imply that the company has “superior information” regarding LNG imports to North America.

It will be interesting to watch this deal unfold. There is a tremendous move afoot amongst the larger independents in this country to make natural gas a major part of the climate change debate. With Exxon putting its heft behind the proponents of natural gas, this could have significant implications for that conversation going forward.