Need to break up the tight rock formations of a shale gas field? A HERO, SuperHERO, or SuperHERO Plus+ will likely do the trick.

Investors in Core Laboratories (NYSE: CLB) know that I'm referring to the company's proprietary fracturing charges, which optimize reservoir flow with low-debris detonations. This product line put real ka-boom in Core Lab's third-quarter 2008 revenue, but when the company reports fourth-quarter 2008 results, I question whether management's 2009 outlook will have the same kick.

Looking for a HERO
Although Core Labs operates in three divisions, management specifically named Production Enhancement, which is responsible for the Hero charges, as the engine behind its record third-quarter 2008 results. Since Core reported at the end of October, natural gas prices have slid further, and a general uncertainty has descended on the near-term future for drilling in the North American shale regions.

Some E&P shale players have dramatically slashed their 2009 drilling expenditures, most notably industry heavyweight Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK). Others such as Devon Energy (NYSE: DVN) are waiting to report 2008 results before disclosing 2009 budgets. Although it certainly appears that there will be decreased shale activity overall, it is too soon to know the extent of any net reduction.

Idled rigs could ultimately be immaterial to the discussion. If Core's market penetration for its charges has remained low, even a lackluster drilling environment could still offer some growth opportunities for drillers looking for more efficient methods. On the other hand, Core may have already tapped into the industry's existing demand.

Playing defense
Adding neutral sentiment to the mix, it seems a fairly safe bet that the company's reservoir optimization services will remain insulated from the energy downturn -- a view previously expressed by fellow Fool Toby Shute. Of course, "insulated" and "briskly growing" are two different things.

By now, you may be drumming your fingers, wondering what to do ahead of the earnings release. Here's the deal: Given Core Labs' historically strong operating performance, I think the company's growth might slow in 2009, but I believe its profitability won't be threatened. In my mind, that takes selling off the table.

As for buying ahead of the news, keep in mind that the stock has enjoyed a nice lift from the low $50s in December to just less than $70. You could construe that move as just the beginning of a shift back toward fair value after 2008's drubbing. For my money, however, I would rather wait for management to clue me in. After all, value is relative.

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Fool contributor Mike Pienciak generally tries to avoid exploding objects. He owns shares of Chesapeake Energy, which is an Inside Value selection. The Fool has a disclosure policy.