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The Real Winners of the American Shale Boom

The United States is in the midst of an oil and gas drilling boom. This has blessed the nation with cheap natural gas and plentiful oil, but it looks like it's providing oil services companies with a great business opportunity as well. Forget the oil and gas producers, and take a closer look at Helmerich & Payne (NYSE: HP  ) and CARBO Ceramics (NYSE: CRR  ) .

It's all about the decline
What at first looks like a boom in oil and natural gas can quickly start to look like a bust because well flow from shale plays declines rapidly. Pete Stark, a geologist and senior researcher at IHS, told Bloomberg recently that, "The decline rate is a potential show stopper after a while. You just can't keep up with it."

Why is that? According to Stark, it's because the flow from natural gas wells can fall 50% to 75% in the first year. Oil flows from shale wells can decline nearly 80%. A well that looks like a goldmine quickly needs to be replaced if a company wants its production numbers to keep growing.

(Source: Afaber012, via Wikimedia Commons)

That's where drillers and suppliers come in. Companies like driller Helmerich & Payne and high-end hydraulic fracturing proppant seller CARBO are there to help keep the drill bits going and the flow as high as possible.

The big driller
At the start of the year, Helmerich had 340 drill rigs around the world. However, around 300 of those are located in the United States. By the end of this year, it's expecting to have a total of 375 rigs, with notable growth on the U.S. count.

Helmerich estimates that its share of the drilling market is about 15%, up six percentage points from about five years ago. More importantly, it's leapfrogged over competitors, with a four percentage point lead over the next two largest players. Both had a bigger share of the market than Helmerich in 2008.

The company's revenues hit a peak in fiscal 2008 (years end September) and then fell for two years. However, over the last three fiscal years revenues have headed higher with 2013's top line 66% above what it was in 2008. Earnings followed a similar pattern, hitting nearly $6.80 a share last year including $0.15 from discontinued operations. The fiscal first half is off to a solid start, with six month earnings of nearly $3.20 a share and the announcement of contracts for nine rigs.

It's more than just drilling
That said, just putting a drill bit in the ground isn't the way you get oil and gas out of shale plays. Hydraulic fracturing involves shoving a proppant, water, and chemicals into the ground, too. On that front, CARBO's high-end ceramic proppants offer customers a good deal.

(Source: US Environmental Protection Agency, via Wikimedia Commons)

For example, CARBO's product offers a 20% improvement over lower cost proppant from China. In fact, the company claims that the extra cost for its ceramic material is paid back in just two to six months. CARBO produced 1.75 billion pounds of proppant last year, selling just about all it made. It is working on expanding capacity to 2.75 billion pounds and, if history is any guide, it will sell all of that, too.

CARBO's revenues dipped slightly in 2009, but otherwise have been on a steady upward climb over the last decade. The top line was over $660 million last year (and was only around $220 million ten years ago.) Earnings have been more volatile, and investment in new capacity could be a drag over the next year or so. However, CARBO has been selling everything it makes and as long as shale drilling continues, so too should CARBO's success.

More than what gets pulled out
Drilling for oil and gas is about more than just the commodities, it's also about the process. Helmerich & Payne and CARBO Ceramics are both key players on that side of the equation. With high well flow declines, look for more drilling and more success at Helmerich and CARBO.

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