Reintroducing XTO Energy

One thing I enjoy about XTO Energy's (NYSE: XTO  ) quarterly conference calls is that rather than get lost in the weeds, management always frames the E&P's activities in terms of its overarching strategy and long-term goals.

This quarter -- which saw not only monster production growth, but record cash flow as well -- management went with a theme of reintroducing XTO. They broke down the moving parts and showed how they fit together to drive economic returns.

One of the most useful takeaways was the breakdown of cash flow, which should notch $6 billion this year. One-third goes to maintaining production and reserves. Another third drives 10% growth, and the final third is for whatever XTO feels like doing. This year, that meant paying down debt following some big acquisitions in 2008.

The XTO team also took care to dispel the concern that 2009 results are a one-off anomaly driven by some lucky hedging. The company's hedges have indeed been delightful, locking in nearly $7 natural gas prices this quarter. That's about double the realizations over at Devon Energy (NYSE: DVN  ) or Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC  ) . For 2010, XTO has hedged about 55% of production, and sees cash flow coming in "probably within 5% of this year's." In the largely unhedged 2011 time frame, cash flow looks about the same as this year.

As for individual shale plays -- and XTO immodestly claimed the title of "leading shale player" on the call -- the Fayetteville is one standout. While Southwestern Energy (NYSE: SWN  ) and Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK  ) get more attention in this area, XTO looks like it has a very fine position in the play. The company, having taken a non-operated interest in hundreds of wells, is really just now ramping up its own operated rig program. Production growth was up 21% sequentially. Yowsers.

While XTO has a fair number of uncompleted wells in the Barnett, it echoed Chesapeake's call that the industry has mostly burned its way through this backlog. These lagging completions have pushed back the onshore production decline that never seems to arrive in the government data. The declines are coming, but they probably won't be visible until the end of the first quarter or thereabouts.

This phenomenon, combined with potential storage-related curtailments that XTO has baked into its fourth-quarter guidance, leaves room for natural gas prices to be pressured in the near term. I'm still holding out hope for a better entry point in this group.

Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. Check out his CAPS profile or follow his articles using Twitter or RSS. Chesapeake Energy is an Inside Value recommendation. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chesapeake and XTO. Feel free to drill into our disclosure policy.


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