"Wildcatter" is a term often thrown around in the oil patch. If you're a dividend investor like me, though, anything with the word "wild" in it causes your stomach to turn. Oil and gas focused Enerplus (NYSE:ERF) and its monthly dividend, however, don't fit that mold. Now that this company's corporate makeover is roughly complete, it's a good choice for energy exposure if you don't want to go for a "wild" ride.
A checkered past
Enerplus was once a Canadian Royalty Trust, or CanRoy. That business structure allowed companies to avoid taxation by passing along their earnings to shareholders, who paid taxes on the distribution at regular income tax levels. This meant that Enerplus paid out fat dividends, peaking out at around $0.40 a month or so in the mid to late 2000s.
As more and more companies sought to avoid taxes, however, Canada decided to gut the CanRoy tax advantage. In October 2006, the government made the announcement that royalty trusts would be taxed like regular corporations in what would be known as the "Halloween Massacre." The share prices of Enerplus and many other CanRoys literally fell off a cliff.
That said, it wasn't until 2011 that Enerplus converted into a regular corporation. However, facing a new tax scheme, the oil and gas driller had no choice but to trim dividends in preparation for the shift. Right or wrong, a history of dividend cuts (Enerplus trimmed twice before the conversion) makes a company a non-starter for many dividend investors.
Unfortunately for Enerplus, its conversion to a new structure coincided with a surge in natural gas drilling that left gas prices at historic lows just a year or so later. That led to yet another dividend cut—this time a whopping 50%. No wonder Enerplus, with a recent yield of around 4%, is still flying under the dividend radar screen.
Better than it looks
That said, Enerplus has always run its business on the conservative side. It isn't looking for hot new drilling regions with untold potential. It specifically focuses on mature areas with predictable drilling prospects and decline rates. This is a far cry from, say, Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK), which borrowed and spent vast quantities of money during the land grab when natural gas prices were spiking in the 2000s.
That led Chesapeake to massive land sales, an ugly public battle with Carl Icahn, and the ouster of the co-founder and CEO when gas prices cratered. In fact, Chesapeake Energy today, under new management, is starting to look a lot like Enerplus has always looked. That means a focus on execution and financial discipline.
Enerplus is looking to grow production around 10% this year, coming on the heels of a similar increase last year and in-line with its longer-term trend. It also has some 650 wells in the pipeline to support continued growth in the years ahead. That could be an understatement for a driller focused on operational improvement, though.
Enerplus' Fort Berthold assets are a prime example. Enerplus managed to reduce the cost of drilling a well in this region by 7.5% between 2012 and 2013. Better yet, the amount of oil it generated in the first month of a well's life increased by a massive 50%. It isn't done yet, either, because Enerplus is looking to reduce the space between wells. Management thinks this effort could more than double the number of future wells in Fort Berthold.
Finally starting to shine through
The last decade or so has been tough on Enerplus' image, but in a much different way than a company like Chesapeake that overextended itself at the wrong time. Now that Enerplus' core strengths are starting to outshine its past, it won't be long before Wall Street's short memory leads dividend investors back to this driller and monthly dividend payer's doorstep. Commodity prices will always have a big impact on Enerplus' performance, but with the natural gas nadir behind us it's looking increasingly like better days lie ahead for this top-notch driller.