An Investor's Guide to the Eagle Ford Shale

Production in the Eagle Ford region is increasing at a staggering rate. Here are the major players in the field.

James Catlin
James Catlin
Apr 22, 2014 at 8:24AM
Energy, Materials, and Utilities

The Eagle Ford shale has been an important contributor to U.S. energy production, job creation, and increasing profits for producers in that region. That profit potential hasn't gone unnoticed, with 267 of 1,831 total rigs in the United States now targeting that region.

Recently the EIA released some key findings highlighting the importance of this shale play. First was the tight oil production report that showed the staggering production increases in the Eagle Ford shale region over the past few years.

Source: EIA

This contribution from tight oil, which accounts for 41% of total U.S. production, has pushed overall crude oil production in the United States to an average of 7.84 MMbbl/d, more than 10% of total world production .

As a result, the EIA noted that energy imports into the US have reached their lowest level in 20 years.

Source: EIA

BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP)is the leader in terms of rig count for this region. This comes after the purchase of Petrohawk in 2011 for $15 billion including debt. Buying these high-quality assets is paying off with petroleum liquids production increasing by 9% during the last half of 2013 to 50 MMboe.

On April 16, 2014, BHP reported that "production in the Eagle Ford accelerated at the end of the March 2014 quarter, and we continue to expect growth in Onshore US liquids production of approximately 75 per cent for the full year as a significant inventory of completed wells is brought online."

But BHP has global interests in steel, iron ore, coal, diamonds, and aluminium, as well as oil and gas. This diversification means that the outperformance on the part of onshore U.S. oil and gas will be weighed with results from other sectors. For those looking for safety through diversity, with a large footprint in U.S. onshore, BHP might be the way to invest. 

But what if you're a more aggressive investor seeking a bit more exposure?

EOG Resources (NYSE:EOG) occupies the second spot in terms of rig count but has recently captured the No. 1 spot in terms of oil production in the Eagle Ford. This was done by purchasing strategically important acreage as this discovery unfolded, highlighting management's vision for this region. Approximately 94% of its proven reserves are in the United States and account for about 83% of total production.

According to the 2013 annual report the Eagle Ford continues to be the single largest crude oil growth vehicle in their portfolio and it keeps getting better. Recent drilling results coupled with technological advancements indicate that the amount of recoverable oil may be closer to 3.2 billion Boe, up 45% from the previous estimate of 2.2 billion Boe.

Focusing on prime acreage and technological improvements has allowed EOG to maintain the lowest extraction costs in the region coupled with the most productive wells. In 2014 EOG looks to continue its breakneck pace of drilling with plans for 520 net wells, an 11% increase over 2013's 466 net wells.

Rounding out the top three is Marathon Oil (NYSE:MRO). If you found EOG too hot and BHP too cold, then Marathon might be just right. Over the last two years Marathon has increased its presence in Eagle Ford with key purchases bringing its total acreage to over 330,000. $2.6 billion in capex is planned for the Eagle Ford region with the construction of 250-260 net wells for 2014.

Marathon has been benefiting from the same technological advancements that allow other producers to increase productivity. Production in the Eagle Ford averaged almost 90,000 net Boe/day in the fourth quarter of 2013, an increase of 8,000 net Boe/day from the third quarter. For the final two weeks of 2013, production averaged greater than 100,000 net Boe/day. Drilling times have also improved almost 14% for 2013, while drilling and completion costs have decreased 13% over the same period.

Almost 41% of Marathon's sales in 2013 come from the mainland United States with the Eagle Ford responsible for the majority of those domestic sales. This represents a good balance between this burgeoning region, which is poised for growth, and traditional oil plays around the globe, which provide an element of known safety.

Deploying greater capex combined with increasing productivity, decreased drilling time, and shrinking costs, sounds like a recipe for success in the Eagle Ford. While Marathon may not have the presence of a BHP or EOG, its business strategy for this region is sound and being executed well.

Final thoughts
As technology advances, so will the ability to extract resources from once impossible regions like the Eagle Ford. Operators in this region confirm there are decades of development ahead. This dynamic will benefit companies that were bold enough to be the first movers in this region (or those that bought the first movers), as well as their faithful shareholders.