Shares of Continental Resources (NYSE: CLR ) , a pioneering exploration and production company in North Dakota's Bakken shale formation, have surged by more than 400% over the past five years as the company has consistently delivered strong growth in production, earnings, and cash flow.
As a result of this impressive growth, the company's market cap has risen to nearly $25 billion. The important question now is: Can Continental continue delivering the kind of growth its investors have become accustomed to, or is growth bound to slow sharply as the company exhausts its drilling inventory?
Strong outlook for production and reserve growth
All signs suggest the Continental growth story won't be slowing down any time soon. Having delivered 39% production growth last year, Continental is forecasting production growth of 26%-32% this year and plans to triple its current level of production by the end of 2017. While that may seem incredibly ambitious for a company of Continental's size, it actually seems achievable.
Why? The company's asset base is growing about as fast as its production, as it continues to unlock additional reserves within its Bakken acreage and acquire new properties. Since year-end 2008, Continental has grown its proved reserves at a 47% compound annual growth rate. And last year, it boosted its proved reserves estimates by 299 million barrels of oil equivalent (MMBoe), or 38% year over year, to 1.08 billion barrels of oil equivalent (Boe).
This double-digit jump in proved reserves largely reflects the company's continued success in the Bakken, as well as in the oil- and liquids-rich South Central Oklahoma Oil Province, or SCOOP, play in Oklahoma. In the Bakken, the company continues to test deeper and deeper benches within the Three Forks formation and is seeing strong success with new pilot programs that it is pursuing to evaluate the impact of tighter spacing between its horizontal Bakken wells.
Success with Bakken downspacing pilots
The company recently completed its first big downspacing test on its Hawkinson unit in the southern part of its Three Forks acreage, which involved drilling 14 horizontal wells, three of them legacy wells and 11 new wells, spaced 1,320 feet apart. The results were highly encouraging, with 12 of the 14 wells producing roughly 50% more oil and gas than the company's average Bakken well in their first three months of production.
The company is optimistic that additional downspacing pilot projects could deliver similarly high levels of production at lower costs thanks to the tighter spacing. Encouraged by results from Hawkinson, the company is eager to proceed with full-field development of its acreage this year. Investors may want to keep an eye on two additional density pilot projects -- Tangsrud and Rollefstad -- whose results the company expects to report in May.
Kodiak Oil & Gas (NYSE: KOG ) , a smaller Bakken-focused driller, is also seeing encouraging results from its downspacing pilot programs. The company's Polar Pilot Project is using 800-foot spacing between wellbores, while its Polar Pilot Project 2.0 is testing even tighter spacing of 600-650 feet between wells. Initial results have been highly encouraging, with density pilot wells posting dramatic improvements in productivity.
Big opportunity in Oklahoma
While the Bakken remains Continental's most prized asset, the company also sees tremendous potential in the SCOOP play. Last year, it grew its proved reserves in the play by a whopping 241% to a total of 215 million barrels of oil equivalent. To grow its reserves further, the company plans to spend $100 million on exploring the play this year, in addition to the $790 million it has allocated for development.
Marathon Oil (NYSE: MRO ) is also highly optimistic about SCOOP, encouraged by the play's strong economics, massive resource potential, and multiple oil-bearing zones. The company boosted its acreage position in SCOOP by 20% last year and plans to accelerate spending in the play this year. It pegs its resource potential from the play at around 1.2 billion barrels of oil equivalent.
With 1.2 million net acres in the Bakken and 403,000 net acres in the SCOOP play, Continental boasts a large, high-quality, and growing drilling inventory in two highly economic oil- and liquids-rich plays that should support double-digit production growth for several more years, if not longer. In short, I think the Continental Resources growth story remains intact for the foreseeable future.
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