Oil is our sticky, slightly sulfuric friend, and we can't get enough of the stuff -- literally. That's why our global search for oil has turned from the low-hanging fruit, which has gone all pruney on us, to more challenging locales ... such as, say, thousands of feet beneath the sea floor. Integrated and national oil companies alike are increasingly trawling the depths by hiring out deepwater offshore rigs. Noble (NYSE:NE), the third-largest offshore driller, surfaced with astonishing earnings results on Thursday.

Rig utilization and operating days, two crucial metrics when evaluating the efficient deployment of a driller's fleet, came in just shy of last year's elevated totals. The 44% rise in average dayrates, or the contracted amount charged per day of rig operation, fueled the company's explosive growth over Q1 2006. Operating income rose by more than 63%, while EPS rose an even fatter 77%.

Given the participants in this space, I'd argue that the rapid rise in dayrates is not the result of a speculative bubble. Integrated oil companies like Chevron (NYSE:CVX), Total (NYSE:TOT), and Petroleo Brasileiro (NYSE:PBR) are a conservative bunch. These companies don't take a drillship out for a spin to the tune of $220,000 a day unless there's a reasonably assured return on their investment.

You might think that offshore drillers like Noble, Diamond Offshore (NYSE:DO), and GlobalSantaFe (NYSE:GSF) would be priced for perfection, given the ebullient pricing environment. You'd be wrong, thanks to the market's caution regarding the highly cyclical nature of the oil business. However, the single-digit multiple Wall Street's assigning to Noble's cash earnings seems excessively pessimistic, given that 51% of the available days for its premium jackup rigs are contracted through 2008. The oil biz may see a downturn, but these drillers won't take it fully on the chin when that day comes.

Noble's management has been swiftly buying back shares, and the company's board recently approved a further increase in the size of its repurchase program. If Noble decided to jack up its meager dividend, as Barron's recently suggested, I think this rock-solid performer might dredge up a lot more enthusiasm.

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Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't own stock in any of the shares mentioned. Total is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. The Motley Fool has a noble disclosure policy.