Houston-based natural gas producer Cabot Oil & Gas (NYSE: COG) saw a 55% drop in its year-over-year first-quarter net profits. Earnings dropped from $28.7 million to $12.9 million, which is quite alarming. Let's take a closer look at the quarter.

The finances
CEO Dan Dinges blamed the fall on the decline in natural gas prices over the corresponding periods. However, this does not quite explain everything, as the company has also scaled up production.

The real culprit affecting profitability lies with the $14.6 million rise in operating expenses. While it's true that total production rose from 26.7 billion cubic feet equivalent to 37.7 Bcfe for comparable quarters, the company could not keep the expenses down, with transportation and gathering costing nearly $13 million -- up from $3.7 million.

As a result of these higher costs, operating income fell to $36.3 million this quarter, from $60.5 million a year ago -- a 40% drop. Foolish investors must always look at a company's operations as part of their greater due diligence.

One more thing
Dinges did say that there should be expansion in 2011 along the top line, especially in the Eagle Ford shale play. Cabot intends to participate in or personally drill 25 to 30 wells -- up from its current involvement in six wells. With a partnership with EOG Resources (NYSE: EOG), there is potential for growth. I can confirm that Texas' Eagle Ford shale play has huge potential in terms of production.

Foolish bottom line
Demand for natural gas will grow as the need to satisfy the hunger for energy increases. As a legitimate, present-day alternative to ever-pricey oil, Cabot's natural gas properties have great potential in terms of growth. After all, companies such as Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC) and Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK) have shown it in the same category in the past. Still, it would be more Foolish to wait and watch which way this company will turn.

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.