Boy, things have sure changed in the oil patch since I covered Apache's (NYSE:APA) earnings last August. Commodity prices had already begun their descent by then, but certainly no one believed at the time that this would be, as Helmerich & Payne (NYSE:HP) has put it, "the worst cyclical downturn since 1981."

A lot of oil and gas exploration company business models were built for the boom times, and some of those companies are struggling to stay solvent today. Some have failed to do so. As I noted in October, however, Apache stands apart for its conservatism.

That statement can be applied even more literally today. First off, the sub-6.5% blended cost of debt that we saw Apache obtain in late 2008 stacks up most impressively compared to subsequent capital raises by companies like Petrohawk Energy (NYSE:HK) and Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK).

As for Apache's equity, the shares have performed better than those of Devon Energy (NYSE:DVN), but they otherwise don't really stand out from the pack. If this downturn really drags out, I think we will see that relative outperformance emerge, however.

Now, as for the first-quarter numbers, they were none too rosy, but operating earnings did come in well ahead of analyst expectations. The net income figure was significantly distorted by a non-cash writedown, which is par for the course for companies employing full-cost accounting. You won't see Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE:APC) taking such a hit, for example, but this kind of charge is non-economic, so don't sweat it.

The best news may lie on the cost front, seeing as Apache reported 21% lower cash costs per barrel of oil equivalent than the prior year. Plunging prices outweighed these cost savings, taking cash margins down from the 73% range to just shy of 60%, but that still represents some substantial cash being created.

On the call, perhaps the most important point made by management was that Apache has more economic plays than it has cash flows to deploy. The company has no interest in spending beyond this level, especially given the falling industry cost structure. It really pays to wait, and Apache needs exactly this sort of luxury, given the condition of its balance sheet.

If anything, Apache will be allocating extra capital to low-cost acquisitions, like the Permian properties just picked up from Marathon Oil (NYSE:MRO). The company estimates that it paid less than 4.5 times cash flow, based on hedges in place. If banks keep aggressively pulling E&P company credit lines, then Apache will probably see even more tasty targets surface in the not-too-distant future.

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Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. Check out his Motley Fool CAPS profile or follow his articles using Twitter or RSS. The Fool has a disclosure policy.