While Devon Energy (NYSE: DVN ) slims down its global operations, Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK ) is busy unlocking at least eight new plays. That's the freedom afforded by the joint venture model, which has brought in a ton of cash from partners such as BP (NYSE: BP ) , Plains Exploration & Production (NYSE: PXP ) , and Total SA.
Two of the plays should be familiar to those tuned in to the shale scene. The Bossier lies above the Haynesville in Louisiana and eastern Texas, while the Eagle Ford is a rapidly emerging southern Texas play that an attendee at the recent NAPE Expo (a major prospect-shopping event down in Houston) described to me as the "play du jour." Chesapeake has only 150,000 net acres at present, but wants to double or triple that position. I wonder whether it would be interested in partnering with Pioneer Natural Resources (NYSE: PXD ) ?
Chesapeake is also working on a half-dozen unnamed, earlier-stage plays -- all of them oily, and all of them west of the Mississippi. This work is taking Chesapeake into the Rockies, which the company has previously avoided and routinely knocked in its presentation slides for the area's "political/environmental hassles." The oil allure is just too tough to pass up, I guess. One of the plays, the Niobrara, has also drawn the interest of EOG Resources (NYSE: EOG ) , Noble Energy (NYSE: NBL ) , and others.
These new plays could ultimately bring Chesapeake into a less lopsided balance between oil and gas. But for now, the company's production profile is dominated by the latter. Production in 2009 was 92% gas, just as in 2008. This left the company exposed to very weak pricing over the past year. Hedging boosted Chesapeake's gas-equivalent realizations by 71%, however, limiting the drop in operating cash flow to 18%. Devon Energy saw its cash flow cut in half, so it could have been a lot worse.
As for 2010, Chesapeake has increased its hedges again, with swap coverage moving from 43% of projected gas volumes to 53%. This is somewhat light compared to Pioneer's hedges, but it should ensure some robust excess cash generation this year. This company has been dogged by leverage concerns, but as long as Chesapeake doesn't go overboard on oil play acquisitions, sentiment should shift as we progress through 2010.