It’s been roughly two years since BP’s (NYSE:BP) Deepwater Horizon disaster. The resulting explosion in 2010 not only killed 11 workers and created arguably the worst oil spill in history, but seriously set back drilling activity in the region. For six months, the moratorium on drilling and new permits by the Obama administration kept the Gulf of Mexico fallow.
What a difference a few years makes. While BP’s legal hangups continue and its vaunted Russian joint venture appears threatened, activity in the Gulf has surged to new highs as the ban on drilling has ended. New permits have been issued, and exploration and production (E&P) firms are once again extracting hydrocarbons. As a critical component to America’s future energy independence, drilling in the Gulf of Mexico will remain robust for years to come.
Just how robust is evident by the rising day rates E&P firms need to pay to rent an advanced drilling rig to probe the Gulf’s deep waters for new deposits. Recently, those rates hit a record high.
For investors, the rising activity and rates could mean it’s finally time to bet on deepwater drillers, and one in particular, Noble (NYSE:NE).
A Drill Rig Loaded With the Latest
As demand for drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico continues to grow, the day rates for these rigs keep climbing. Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE:APC) recently signed a three-year drilling contract with Nobel for the company’s new Bob Douglas ultra-deepwater drilling vessel. The cost to rent this state-of-the-art rig: a staggering $618,000 a day.
The Bob Douglas is designed to tackle the new discoveries found in the Gulf’s ultra-deep waters. The bulk of new discoveries have been made in a geological formation known as the Lower Tertiary, where petroleum analysts estimate that the Gulf contains an extra 15 billion barrels of crude oil.
The new rig, which is still under construction in South Korea and will be online in 2013, seems capable of the task. It will be able to drill in waters up to 12,000 feet deep and can accommodate up to 210 workers on board.
The vessel will also come equipped with a 165-ton crane that will enable it to move subsea production equipment with ease. Noble has said the giant crane, which isn’t standard equipment on most rigs, will “provide another level of efficiency during field development programs.”
Perhaps more important, the Bob Douglas will feature the latest safety equipment, including a two-pronged blowout preventer system. In an effort to avoid another BP-style disaster, the newly reconfigured Bureau of Ocean Energy Management & Regulatory Enforcement (BOEMRE) and the U.S. Interior Department have begun increasing the regulations required for blowout preventers. The rig already meets future standards.
A Win For Noble and Investors
Most contract drillers, like Diamond Offshore Drilling (NYSE:DO), have been able to roughly double day rates as renewed interest in the Gulf has taken hold. Noble is no different, but its new ultra deepwater position makes it quite attractive for investors.
With the Bob Douglas now under lease, Noble has two of its four ultra-deepwater drilling rigs now being built in South Korea under contract. The remaining two are scheduled to be delivered in 2014. With activity in the Lower Tertiary rising, it’s only a matter of time before those rigs get rented as well. Once they do, it’ll mean some big bucks for Noble.
That $618,000 a day price tag for the Bob Douglas equates to approximately $677 million in revenue for the drilling firm. That doesn’t even include cost escalation provisions. Analysts at Global Hunter Securities rate the rental price for the rig’s three-year contract as “very good.”
That additional revenue will help fuel Noble’s continued performance. Over the last few quarters, solid demand across its wide range of rigs and vessels — with deepwater gear leading the way — has boosted earnings.
This trend continues. In Noble’s latest earnings report, issued today, quarterly profits more than tripled, as net profit surged to $160 million, or 63 cents per share. That’s up from just $54 million, or 21 cents per share, a year ago when the drilling moratorium was in place. Noble’s revenue grew 43% in the quarter.
CEO David Williams credited the driller’s strong performance last quarter to the addition of new rigs like the Bob Douglas as well as to less unpaid downtime across the fleet, thanks to the return of Gulf drilling.
So far Noble shares are up about 17% in 2012, similar to competitors like Transocean (NYSE:RIG). However, the kicker for Noble and its investors is that only about 77% of floating rig days and 75% of jackup rig days are committed in 2012. That’ll leave plenty of room for Noble to benefit from rising day rates. It also makes Noble’s forward P/E of 8.25 quite inviting, besting even Transocean’s 9.25 forward multiple.
Clearly, the addition of Noble’s new ultra deepwater offerings to its stable of “regular” rigs is creating a recipe for long-term success in the Gulf of Mexico.
As of this writing, Aaron Levitt doesn’t own any securities mentioned here.