Offshore vs. Onshore Drilling: Which Is a Better Investment?

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Over the past few years, two improved drilling techniques have helped expand the amount of recoverable oil and natural gas around the world. Improvements in fracking technology have opened up otherwise uneconomic drilling locations all over North America, and ultra-deepwater drilling is expanding drilling in oceans worldwide.

But one of these is a better investment for a variety of reasons.

The nature of oil drilling
Companies drill for oil or natural gas for one reason -- profits. But drilling on land and drilling offshore provide two different return-on-value calculations and time horizons.

An onshore driller can turn on and off new drilling with the price of oil or natural gas. Look at the correlation of price to the number of inland rigs in operation to show the difference. A few months of down prices, and the number of rigs working inland drops. That's because it takes a matter of weeks to drill an inland well, not a long time horizon for drillers. 

US Inland Rotary Rigs Chart

US Inland Rotary Rigs data by YCharts.

This has a boom-and-bust effect on companies such as Baker Hughes (NYSE: BHI  ) and Haliburton (NYSE: HAL  ) , which provide equipment to drillers. If prices are high, then business is good, but if prices fall, business drops off in a heartbeat. Bentek Energy says that Eagle Ford shale well drilling averages about 19 days for each well, so a month's notice may be all that's needed. 

In shallow water offshore, a similar boom and bust can take place, because contracts are measured in months, not normally in years. But ultra-deepwater drilling has changed that dynamic. Ultra-deepwater wells take months to drill, and oil companies are locking up rigs with extremely long-term contracts. Last year, Transocean (NYSE: RIG  ) signed 10-year contracts with Royal Dutch Shell for four newly built rigs that won't even be complete until at least 2015. The contract pays Transocean as much as $520,000 per day, an incredible rate given the long duration of the contract. Competitor SeaDrill (NYSE: SDRL  ) has half of its floater fleet contracted into 2017. 

Just to put the difference in perspective, can you imagine an onshore rig contract that reached until 2025? The onshore market is simply too volatile to make that long-term bet. That's why offshore drilling service companies, particularly those with ultra-deepwater exposure, are the best bet. 

How to play the trend
With long-term contracts at high dayrates the norm in ultra-deepwater, there are a few ways to play the trend.

Rig owners are a play on offshore drilling and depending on the company can be a leveraged way to play ultra-deepwater drilling. SeaDrill has one of the largest ultra-deepwater fleets and is adding more rigs this year. Transocean sold a large portion of its shallow-water rigs to focus on ultra-deepwater and is finally putting the Macondo spill behind it. Noble is another company that is focusing on ultra-deepwater by adding new rigs to its fleet at a rapid rate. SeaDrill, my top pick in the space, also pays a hefty 8.5% dividend yield. 

Oceaneering International (NYSE: OII  ) is a service provider to offshore drillers, providing the equipment and technology that make these wells possible. Subsea 7 is another contractor providing engineering services from the seabed to the surface. 

You can also bet on specific drillers like InterOil, which has assets off Papua New Guinea, or Cobalt International Energy, which is drilling for oil off the coast of Angola. The challenge with these investments is their volatile nature given the unknowns of these new fields. I'd rather cash in by owning companies contracting with drillers to lock in more certain gains. 

Offshore is the way forward
I've mentioned that SeaDrill is my top pick, and one of our analysts has taken a deep dive into the stock to provide investors with both the positive and the negative sides.

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.

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (12)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2013, at 1:08 PM, x4x13x wrote:

    How aboout an analysis of oil exploration firms on an offshore versus onshore basis. Which firms have the better profitability outlook based on the difference in costs for drilling and the success rate for producing?

  • Report this Comment On February 01, 2013, at 4:28 PM, LukePB wrote:

    Interesting article. One thing it does not address, though, is whether the fracking boom could make demand for ultra-deep drilling collapse.

    Given that there is now an abundant supply of gas and oil onshore, what is the point of deep sea drilling?

  • Report this Comment On February 03, 2013, at 4:23 PM, ALLWIN wrote:

    Good point LukePB!

    Would be interesting to hear the comments of he the author.

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