Forget Commodity Prices: 1 Company That Makes Money From the Drill Bit

If you like the idea of investing in the energy Renaissance taking place in the United States, but are afraid of the inherent risk of fluctuating oil and natural gas prices, then it might be time to take a look at Helmerich & Payne (NYSE: HP  ) . Indeed, drilling activity is more important than commodity prices for this industry supplier.

"Wildcatters" and volatility
Making money in the oil and gas business can be a risky proposition. You buy or lease land. Drill a hole in the ground and, using the best science and technology, hope it produces as planned. And then often volatile commodity prices can blow all that up. That's pretty much what happened to Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK  ) when natural gas prices started to plummet.

The company spent heavily on property only to find that record low natural gas prices in 2012 forced it to record, "a noncash after-tax impairment charge of $2.022 billion... related to the carrying value of natural gas and oil properties." The land wasn't bad, falling commodity prices just meant it wasn't worth as much as the company thought. Worse, it loaded up on debt to buy the land. It's no wonder that Carl Icahn worked to oust Chesapeake Energy's founder and CEO.

CHK Chart

CHK data by YCharts

In fact, overlaying the spot natural gas price on Chesapeake Energy's share price is almost scary and shows the importance that commodity prices can have for drillers. Today, though, Chesapeake Energy is under new management, natural gas prices are rising, and the painful write-offs appear to be over.

Drilling is what counts
Cutting costs and paying down debt have been big focuses at Chesapeake Energy, but it hasn't stopped drilling. For example, its capital budget for this year is projected to be over $5 billion. Asset sales will help offset some of that cost, with an expected $4 billion of proceeds. At this point, the company has four properties where it's looking to drill more than 260 wells over the next two years. And that's nothing compared to the 10,000 plus locations it believes it can drill based on its land inventory.

This is all good news for Chesapeake Energy and its shareholders, but it shows the potential that Helmerich & Payne's business holds. That's because you can't drill a well without a drill rig, and Helmerich & Payne is one of the industry's largest contract drillers. The company started 2013 with 340 drill rigs, about 300 of which were located in the United States. However, demand for high-tech rigs has led the company to buy more. Management's goal is to end 2014 with over 380 rigs.

(Source: Chappell, Oil City, Pennsylvania, via Wikimedia Commons)

And while some drillers have pulled back, Helmerich & Payne estimates its market share at about 15%. Its closest competitor clocks in at around 11%. That's a nice picture, but it's the change over the last five years that tells the story. Helmerich & Payne's market share in 2008 was 8% with two competitors claiming 13% and 14%, respectively. That's a big switch partly made possible by the fact that Helmerich & Payne's rig count has gone up every year since 2005.

Helmerich & Payne's sales and earnings have also been heading higher. They have advanced in each of the last three fiscal years (years end September) after dipping in 2009 and 2010. With roughly 90% of its rigs contracted, solid demand, and new rigs on the way, it looks like that upward trajectory is set to continue. And with a return on equity about five percentage points better than its peers, Helmerich & Payne is likely to be a standout performer.

The driller or the drill bit?
When it comes to investing in the oil and gas industry, you don't have to settle in for the volatile ride that often accompanies a "wildcatter" like Chesapeake Energy. If you switch gears and look, instead, at industry service suppliers like Helmerich & Payne you might find a smoother and still quite profitable ride awaits you.

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