Last year was a strategically important one for ONEOK (NYSE:OKE). The natural gas pipeline company acquired its MLP in a needle-moving deal that set the stage for future growth. It also positioned the company to end the year well.

We'll find out whether that's the case on Tuesday night when ONEOK releases its fourth-quarter results. That said, the company has dropped enough hints over the past few months to suggest that investors won't be disappointed by that report or its outlook for the coming year.

Pipelines with a blue sky in the background.

Image source: Getty Images.

Anticipate results to be around the midpoint of its guidance range

After having no trouble overcoming the impact of Hurricane Harvey in the third quarter, ONEOK reaffirmed its full-year guidance that adjusted EBITDA would be in the range of $1.89 billion to $2.06 billion, and distributable cash flow (DCF) would be between $1.28 billion and $1.44 billion. Given ONEOK's results up to that point, it implies that the company should pull in between $450 million and $620 million of adjusted EBITDA during the fourth quarter, along with $171 million to $420 million in DCF. The odds are pretty good that the company hit that target, likely delivering results around the midpoint.

Fueling that view is the hint ONEOK provided when it unveiled its 2018 forecast earlier this year. In that press release, the company stated that its 2018 EBITDA forecast represented "a nearly 20% increase compared with its previously announced 2017 guidance that was affirmed on Oct. 31, 2017." Given that growth from the midpoint of both ranges is more than 17%, it suggests the company's fourth-quarter results were right on the money.

Expect it to stand by its 2018 forecast

Speaking of ONEOK's outlook for this year, it's highly likely that the company will maintain its view since it just unveiled guidance a month ago. That said, investors should still look for clues that suggest it's still on track to deliver on its promised growth.

One of the biggest drivers of the company's anticipated earnings increase this year is the expectation that it will recover more ethane in the Mid-Continent region. Due to low prices, customers had decided against paying the extra fees to recover ethane from natural gas in recent years. However, ONEOK expects increasing commodity prices and improving demand will enable it to recover an additional 70,000 barrels of ethane per day this year, which would boost earnings by $100 million. Given that big boost, it's important to see that the company still expects to recover these volumes this year.

Pipelines laid out for construction at sunset.

Image source: Getty Images.

Look for more growth to be coming down the pipeline

Another driver of ONEOK's growth this year is the expansion projects it has under way. Last year, the company and its partner Martin Midstream Partners (NASDAQ:MMLP) secured a $200 million expansion to their West Texas LPG system. Meanwhile, future volume growth from EnLink Midstream Partners (NYSE: ENLK) fueled a $130 million expansion of ONEOK's Mid-Continent natural gas liquids (NGL) gathering system and its Sterling III pipeline. ONEOK currently expects the growth project with Martin Midstream to enter service in the third quarter, while the expansions supporting EnLink Midstream should finish up in the fourth quarter. As such, it's important that the company remain on time and on budget with those projects so it can hit its full-year guidance.  

Meanwhile, earlier this year ONEOK announced plans to invest $1.4 billion in building an NGL pipeline and related infrastructure in the Rockies. That project will go a long way to helping the company achieve an ambitious plan to increase its dividend at a 9% to 11% annual rate through 2021. That pipeline was part of the $3 billion to $3.5 billion of potential growth projects ONEOK had been pursuing to fuel dividend growth. By locking up this project, the company still had about $2 billion of late-stage capital projects under development that it hoped to secure as soon as it had sufficient customer commitments. Given the importance of these projects in driving future dividend growth, investors should see if the company has any more locked up or in development when it reports results.

Don't expect too many surprises

With about 90% of its earnings coming from stable sources like fee-based contracts, ONEOK's results tend to be relatively predictable, which is why the company appears poised to hit its guidance in the fourth quarter. As such, one of the few uncertainties is if the company can lock up enough expansion projects to fuel its dividend growth forecast. Though with several already lined up, ONEOK's 5.5%-yielding dividend appears likely to be heading higher for at least the next few years, making it a solid stock for income investors.