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Forget Fracking, This Oil Company Has a Low Cost Alternative to Reward Shareholders

Compared to fracking, enhanced oil recovery -- or EOR -- methods have never been in vogue. This has largely been attributed to the fact that the latter require high initial investment, not excluding availability of resources such as a steady carbon dioxide supply. As a result, investors are generally wary of such businesses as they are viewed to be profitable only if supported by high oil prices. But with EOR specialist Denbury Resources (NYSE: DNR  ) initiating dividend payments for the first time this year, the market's perspective could change. But more importantly, to investors, this signifies that the Plano, Texas-based company has a stable business model capable of generating some solid long-term returns.

Not an industry facing sunset. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Not a sunset industry
Fracking, no doubt, has made U.S. energy independence a distinct possibility in the near future. But secondary and tertiary oil recovery methods have been quietly effective despite not getting as much attention as the former. In the United States, Denbury Resources is one of the few exploration and production companies that specialize in EOR techniques.

Operating primarily in the Gulf Coast and the Rocky Mountain regions, tertiary oil recovery constituted 55% of Denbury's total production in 2013. In this method, an already producing oil field is acquired -- generally one where production volumes through conventional methods are in decline. Through years of production, the reservoir's natural pressure gradually drops. Carbon dioxide and water are then alternatively injected into the formation, depending on the reservoir's characteristics. This reduces the viscosity of the remaining oil trapped in the formation, thus causing it to flow to the production well. The following graphic from the Department of Energy explains the process quite vividly:

Cross section illustrating how carbon dioxide and water can be used to flush residual oil from a subsurface rock formation between wells. Source: Department of Energy

Critics of EOR methods argue that costs involved are high and that low oil prices could markedly reduce profitability of such a business. Looking back, the past five years haven't been too impressive with Denbury's stock returns being essentially flat. The market hasn't shown a lot of enthusiasm toward EOR techniques so far.

Reality seems to look different though
But on a relative basis, Denbury's production margins have actually been higher than those of its peers. The following chart from Denbury's latest investor presentation (link opens in pdf) pegs the company's operating margin at nearly $70 per barrel of oil equivalent -- a very high number in this industry.

Source: Denbury Resources Investor Presentation (link opens a PDF)

Adjusted three-year finding and development costs have been among the lowest at $18.42 per BOE. For an oil producer, I think this is considerably attractive since most companies involved with shale drilling have substantially higher production costs. According to The Economist, the breakeven price for oil producers from shale drilling ranges from $60 in the Bakken to $80 in Eagle Ford (paywall). So comparatively, Denbury's position looks pretty good as a low-cost producer.

A solid infrastructure up in place
To get tertiary oil recovery operations under way, the company needs a large supply of carbon dioxide. The good news is that Denbury already has access to cheap and abundant sources of CO2. Additionally, it has the pipeline infrastructure to move the gas to its fields employing tertiary recovery. Mississippi's Jackson Dome is Denbury's primary Gulf Coast CO2 source with a net interest in 4.8 trillion cubic feet of reserves. The company's Texas CO2 pipeline network is capable of servicing its operations at its Hastings, Oyster Bayou, Webster, Conroe, and Thompson fields. The net result is that the growing economy of scale reduces per barrel infrastructure costs. The five fields are estimated to collectively hold net reserves of 338 million barrels of crude oil and pipeline cost per tertiary barrel is expected to fall to $3.50 per barrel.

Source: Denbury Resources Investor Presentation (link opens a PDF)

Up north, there's no dearth of carbon dioxide for the company's Rocky Mountains operations either. Late last year, Denbury secured long-term supplies from the Ridley Ridge area, which has an estimated 2 trillion cubic feet of net CO2 reserves. Additionally it has secured a daily supply of 65 MMcf/day from the ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) operated Shute Creek from the LaBarge Area.

Foolish bottom line
In short, with all the initial investments already up in place, it's only a matter of time before cash flows increase and excess cash is returned to investors in the form of dividends. What's particularly encouraging for Denbury is its overall production profile -- 95% crude oil and the rest natural gas. The company aims to grow organic production between 4% and 8% through 2020  and at the same time anticipate dividend growth over the long term. Initiating an annual dividend of $0.25 for 2014, management is aiming to double that next year pushing up yield to 3.4%, assuming share prices remain constant. There's a lot income investors can look forward to with Denbury Resources.

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Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (1)

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 April 09, 2014, at 2:02 AM, OKIEOIL wrote:

    I enjoyed the article and it makes a good case Denbury. There are a couple of glaring errors that are not relevant to your conclusions.

    1. The wells were likely already fraced. If you check well histories, you will find that most if not all the wells Denbury is subjecting to CO2 and Water Flooding were fraced when they were initially completed. The processes are generally complimentary not mutually exclusive.

    2. Water and CO2 do not significantly affect viscosity of the oil in place. They fill pore space and add energy to oil in place that has no reason to move to the lowered pressure region created by the well bore. Water and oil do not mix. CO2 is miscible in both oil and water. Your graphic supports this by the way.

    3. The oil bank shown in your graphic is really good at displaying the concept of a perfect secondary and tertiary recovery scheme. The problem is that they are seldom quite that good in application. Still worth doing.

    Overall, well done.

  • Report this Comment On April 09, 2014, at 1:14 PM, TMFPetra wrote:


    Thanks! Really appreciate your comments.

    Actually EOR methods can be employed to both conventional as well as fracked wells, and is, in fact, an older technology than fracking. But thanks for letting us know that Denbury's wells were originally fracked.

    The whole idea was to portray that there is money in secondary and tertiary recovery methods as against primary oil recovery employed through fracking. I think I should have made that point more clear.

    And yes, the graphic is representing an ideal situation for EOR methods. It's more challenging in reality.

    Fool on!



  • Report this Comment On April 09, 2014, at 2:51 PM, OKIEOIL wrote:

    Full disclosure: I did not research Denbury's inventory. I am familiar with several of their operation areas and it is highly unlikely that most of their wells were not fraced when completed. Few wells in hard rock country since the mid-50's were not fraced at some point. As you noted, Water flooding started before 1950. I did not hear of tertiary recovery until the early 70's. Oxy made CO2 injection a science. Combining both water and CO2 is great in reservoirs that suit them. No technique is a panacea as every reservoir is different. The same technique does not always work in the same formation in different areas. The important thing is that Denbury has a good record of doing things right.

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Isac Simon

Specializing in oil & gas companies since 2011, Isac digs for attractive investment opportunities among mid-sized and smaller companies in the oil and gas industry. Additionally, he keeps a close watch on economic trends affecting the industry at large. Follow him on Twitter for the latest trends in the U.S. oil and gas space...

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