Australia-based BHP Billiton Petroleum has put up “now hiring” signs in the Fayetteville Shale as the international petroleum giant seeks to expand its presence in the unconventional Arkansas natural gas play.

The Aussie oil giant is also now sending strong signals that it plans to compete on equal terms in the Arkansas shale with rivals Southwestern Energy and ExxonMobil’s XTO Energy, following Friday’s blockbuster deal to purchase Petrohawk Energy Corp.’s U.S. shale assets for $15 billion.

In April, BHP completed a deal with Chesapeake Energy Corp. to purchase 487,000 net acres of leasehold and producing natural gas properties with 2.4 trillion cubic feet of proven reserves in the Fayetteville Shale play for $4.75 billion in cash.

BHP Chief Executive J. Michael Yeager said the Petrohawk acquisition would add high-quality growth to the company’s expanding shale-rich gas and liquids portfolio, which includes a large swath of natural gas properties in central Arkansas.

“Petrohawk has a focused portfolio of three world-class onshore natural gas and liquids rich shale assets,” Yeager said July 15 in announcing the Petrohawk deal. “With over a decade of significant investment and volume growth ahead, this transaction would build on our recent acquisition of the Fayetteville shale in Arkansas and provides the potential to more than double our existing resource base.”

Meanwhile, BHP is seeking to fill key positions in order to re-ignite its drilling program in the Fayetteville Shale. The company has recently posted openings at for technical field hand positions in Searcy, including listings for a drilling superintendent, a drilling specialist and a civil engineer.

A year ago, Chesapeake cut its capital spending by more than $400 million and suspended much of its drilling program, ahead of announcing its deal with BHP to exit the Fayetteville Shale. In fact, then-Chesapeake had lowered its activity from an average of 18 operated rigs in 2009 to eight in 2010, and an average of eight operated rigs projected for 2011.

But BHP has made it clear that it does not plan to continue that trend. After the deal with Petrohawk is completed, expected later this year, the Australian oil giant will be one of the largest shale leaseholders and operators in the U.S.

The Petrohawk deal will give BHP operator’s status at the Eagle Ford play in South Texas; the Haynesville Shale in northwest Louisiana and East Texas; and the Permian Basin in West Texas. BHP is now the second-largest leasehold in the Arkansas unconventional natural gas play, behind Southwestern Energy Corp.

BHP Billiton Petroleum is a wholly owned subsidiary of BHP Billiton Limited of Australia, an industrial conglomerate based in Melbourne.  Talk Business requested comment from BHP for this story and will update if a response is received.

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