A Pause at Apache

In past peeks at Apache (NYSE: APA  ) , I've focused on the large oil and gas finder's cost structure. After checking out the company's first-quarter results, my concerns have definitely shifted.

Production costs of around $9 per barrel are certainly nothing to be perturbed about. The thing that's dogging Apache now is a drop-off in production growth. At this time last year, it was reporting 17% higher flows year over year. Today, we're looking at 4% growth, which is no feast. Sure, that would be solid for a giant like Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) or ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) , but Apache should be more spry.

Granted, this company has some delectable drilling prospects. Recent results in Australia have doubled recoverable gas estimates in the Julimar area. Even more exciting is the company's joint venture with EnCana (NYSE: ECA  ) in what Apache calls the Ootla area of British Columbia. This is the same Horn River Basin play that Quicksilver Resources (NYSE: KWK  ) recently latched onto. As noted before, Apache and EnCana control the largest acreage position here. After drilling some tremendous test wells, Apache estimates its potential share at nine trillion to 16 trillion cubic feet of gas. The company's entire proven gas reserves stood at fewer than eight trillion at year-end.

So Apache is anything but prospect-poor. The company is also generating strong returns on capital employed, which I'll take over reckless growth any day of the week. Still, there are other exploration and production companies out there that are delivering the whole enchilada -- strong growth in production, reserves, and cash flows -- while also keeping a tight focus on cost structure. EnCana and Devon Energy (NYSE: DVN  ) both fit the bill, and they also trade at modest multiples. For something spicier, EOG Resources (NYSE: EOG  ) is also enticing.

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