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McMoRan Exploration: Like Running in Quicksand

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Slow and steady wins the race, they say, but McMoRan Exploration's (NYSE: MMR  ) imitation of the tortoise in its competition against the hare is all too real for investors who sent its stock skidding after it failed to start a process necessary for getting its Davey Jones well producing.

Last month, the ultra-deepwater driller had said it had started flow testing on the well because removal of debris has taken longer than expected. When it updated operations again yesterday, it said it was beginning to inject a solvent into the formation to clean out its perforations, which means it still hasn't done what's necessary to get the well closer to commercial production.

The well has taken far longer to get up and running than was anticipated and it's been subject to delays all along, raising fears it may run out of cash before it can prove the validity of its thesis that there are huge reserves locked deep beneath the Gulf of Mexico salt geology at depths of 25,000-35,000 feet. It expects to hit reserves of multitrillion cubic feet that could bridge the difference between deepwater drillers like Transocean (NYSE: RIG  ) and Seadrill (NYSE: SDRL  ) and shallow-water specialists like Hercules Offshore (Nasdaq: HERO  ) and Parker Drilling (NYSE: PKD  ) .

If it could only get its well operational.

A transformational event
The difference between theory and reality is wide if you can't show results, and investors seem to be getting tired of the endless delays. The stock tumbled 23% yesterday and was down 16% in morning trading today.

Of course, these traders have been betting on the well-testing event rather than the ultimate end result, which should benefit investors with patience. But the delays have snagged its drilling partner Energy XXI (Nasdaq: EXXI  ) as well as Plains Exploration & Production (NYSE: PXP  ) , which owns shares of McMoRan that it got in exchange for selling acreage to it on the Gulf of Mexico shelf. Energy XXI has recently shifted its focus away from natural gas because of the industry's weak fundamentals and was focusing instead on oil exploration, so it's become increasingly tied to McMoRan's success.

The barite solvent injection now being performed is a requisite step to performing the measurable flow test. While the market seemed to believe it would have been done before now, McMoRan is moving forward even if it seems to be at a glacial pace. At the same time, however, the driller needs to move off the dime.

Last quarter, losses widened to $64 million, or $0.16 per share, from $9 million, or $0.06, a year ago and slightly worse than the $0.15 analysts had anticipated. But revenues fell by a third to $92 million as production dropped to 134 million cubic feet equivalent per day, down from last year's 187 Mcfe/d, with both natural gas and oil sales volumes down by 20% or more. With gas prices cut by a third and oil prices only incrementally higher, the impact was this large loss.

Patience, grasshopper
McMoRan has a goldmine on its hands -- a truly huge gas reservoir stretching over 20,000 acres that could make it, its partners, and its investors a handsome profit. At this depth, temperatures and pressures make production difficult, so it's not really surprising that it's run into difficulties and delays. What many others thought was impossible to achieve, McMoRan is on the cusp of making a reality.

It has a few other projects under way that should meet with quicker success, including the Lineham Creek exploratory well, located onshore in Louisiana that Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) has a smaller stake in, and two other ultra-deeper prospects, the Blackbeard West No. 2 and the Lomond North prospect, both featuring Energy XXI as a partner. It's drilled a second well at Davey Jones, confirming the size of the prospect.

McMoRan's stock has been crushed, and it trades just below its book value, but will the market be willing to pay for the rewards since it carries some equally large risk? Thus far, the market says it wants more immediate results, but patient investors ought to cash in handsomely. I've rated the oil and gas driller to outperform the broad market indexes on Motley Fool CAPS, the 180,000 member-driven investor community that translates informed opinion into stock ratings of one to five stars because I think it will ultimately be successful, but let me know in the comments section below whether you agree with the old saw that says better late than never.

The short story
If you're an energy investor looking for exciting opportunities, then you should look into one of the more exciting plays in the space: Seadrill. To learn more about the strengths and weaknesses of this company, as well as what to expect from Seadrill going forward, be sure to check out this brand-new premium report put together by one of our top Stock Advisor analysts. Click here to get started.

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