Grow production or preserve capital? This is the question that haunts every oil and gas producer's management team. For years, they have always had to choose one or the other. Chevron's (NYSE:CVX) management thinks it can accomplish both of these things at the same time, though, and it's banking on one asset it thinks can make it happen: The Permian Basin.

Here are a few quotes from Chevron's management team from its most recent conference call that highlight why it thinks the Permian can be such a formidable force for its portfolio in the coming years.

Drilling rig in a green pasture

Image source: Getty Images.

Pulling in profits from the Permian

It's been rather easy to be critical of Big Oil companies and their performance in North America's shale patches for the past several years. North American production profitability has consistently been a stain on earnings reports, and Wall Street analysts have been quick to point out that smaller, more nimble independent producers were outpacing their larger cousins. 

One element that many didn't take into account was the fact that Chevron and others were trying to get their graduate degrees in shale drilling before heading to work. Much of their prior work was dedicated to exploration wells to evaluate a resource or test wells to determine how to extract the resource better.

Those efforts are starting to pay off. According to upstream Vice President James Johnson, Chevron has made a lot of progress on turning its Permian Basin shale production into a highly profitable venture. 

[O]ur unconventional Permian business, fully loaded with overhead cost, has positive after-tax earnings for the first half of 2017. We forecast earnings growth, even at flat prices in future periods, as a result of lower unit operating costs and depreciation rates. Our depreciation rates are expected to further decline as we cycle through prior invested capital and replace it with today's more efficient development costs. At actual 2017 oil, gas, and NGL prices, our year-to-date operating cash flow per barrel is approximately $20 and is accretive to Chevron's overall portfolio.

Later in the call, Johnson explained that with oil prices at $50 a barrel, a large portion of its holdings should generate better-than-30% returns fully burdened. Fully burdened return means it includes the ancillary costs such as facilities and land, not just the costs to drill the well. 

Turning the production dial up to 11

Now that Chevron has determined how to turn its shale holdings into assets that can generate free cash flow and not just grow production, Johnson foresees the company ratcheting up production quickly:

Production continues to track ahead of expectations as we continue to see efficiency gains and improved well performance. The chart on the left shows our second quarter, 2017 production of approximately 178,000 barrels a day, up about 44,000 barrels a day from the second quarter of 2016. In March, we gave you our forecasted Permian compounded annual growth rate of 20% to 35%. And we're currently near the top of that range. Today, we're operating 13 rigs and our plan is to continue to add rigs approximately every eight to ten weeks achieving 20 operated rigs by the end of 2018. In addition to our operated fleet, we expect to see our share of production from non-operated rigs.

An annual growth rate of 35% over several years will completely transform Chevron's production profile. As it stands today, the company expects to produce 450,000 barrels per day from its Permian shale by 2020. At its current development rate, though, it could blow past those projections. 

CVX's actual production vs management projections

Source: Chevron investor presentation.

At this rate, Chevron's Permian Basin holdings alone could represent more than 15% of the company's production portfolio. And that doesn't even include its holdings in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania, nor the Duvernay shale in Alberta, Canada. If the company can successful transfer its experience in the Permian to these other shale holdings, this could be a profit pillar for many years.

Still tightening the belt, though

A couple of Chevron's big oil peers have announced that they are starting to increase their capital spending levels to take advantage of lower oil service contract rates, and set up production growth for 2020 and beyond. According to CFO Patricia Yarrington, Chevron isn't quite at that pivot point yet.

We continue to see lower capital spending as well as lower operating expense outlays despite significant production increases. C&E [capital & exploration] outlays have averaged $4.5 billion per quarter this year. That's over $1 billion lower than the average quarter in 2016 and over 50% lower than the average quarter in 2014. 2017 year-to-date total C&E is $8.9 billion. We are trending below our full year guidance and conservatively would expect full year C&E to come in around $19 billion.

Management has been promising its shareholders that it would be cash-flow neutral in 2017 no matter the oil price environment. That was a pretty bold claim at the time, but it is looking like it is a goal very much within reach by the end of the year. One does have to wonder if the company is sacrificing future growth to meet it, though.

What a Fool believes

So here we have a compelling narrative to follow over the next several years. Chevron is still a little behind its peers when it comes to getting back to spending on new projects, but it has an incredible opportunity in the Permian Basin -- and possibly in its other shale plays -- that could allow it to grow production without too much additional spending. It will be interesting to see how these two dynamics play out over the next several years. Fortunately for Chevron, it looks like it will start to make these decisions from a position of strength, in which it has a healthy balance sheet and plenty of cash flow to cover additional spending.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.