When Whiting Petroleum (NYSE:WLL) announced it was buying Bakken Shale rival Kodiak Oil & Gas last summer it was riding high. That deal would push it past Continental Resources (NYSE:CLR) as North Dakota's top oil producer. The acquisition would also bring the company's potential future drilling locations in the Bakken to more than 7,500, giving it years of future growth. Then shortly after the deal was announced the oil price started to fall and it kept falling until it was cut in half, taking Whiting's stock price down with it.
Despite this sell-off and the now weakened state of Whiting's balance sheet due to its acquisition of debt-heavy Kodiak, the company remains optimistic about its future. In fact, its CEO, Jim Volker, offered up pretty bullish comments about the company's prospects as he firmly believes Whiting can continue to grow even if oil prices stay weak.
"Rigging the company"
At a recent industry conference Volker said that Whiting can still make money in times of low oil prices. He said that he is "rigging the company" to run on a $45-$55 oil price. It is going to take some hard work and some hard choices need to be made, including raising $3 billion to recapitalize by selling stock at a discount, but the company believes it can thrive in the current market environment.
That cash infusion gave the company the money it needed to fund its 2015 capital program of $2 billion, which is half of what it and Kodiak spent last year. However, despite the fact that spending is being cut in half, it won't have as dramatic an impact on Whiting's growth potential because better technologies and processes will help the company get more bang for its buck this year. That is because Whiting and other Bakken-shale-focused rivals like Continental are working to drive well costs down as far as possible. By pushing those costs down the company will eventually be able to enjoy the same returns it was earning at higher oil prices, like those on the slide below, at current oil prices.
As that slide points out the company expects to earn a 48% internal rate of return when oil prices hit $60 a barrel while that return would jump to 72% should oil hit $70. These returns, however, are based on a $6.8 million well cost that Whiting is working to reduce. If it's able to get this investment down it would improve the company's returns so that it could enjoy the same returns at $45-$55 oil that it currently wouldn't see until oil is in the $60-$70 range.
Whiting and Kodiak have historically been at the leading edge of using new technologies and techniques to improve their drilling results in the Bakken. This approach has yielded outstanding results as production rates from new wells drilled in 2014 were up 30% from the wells drilled in 2013. Whiting plans to continue to push the envelope on its wells in order to keep improving its results.
In addition to focusing on improving results, producers in the Bakken expect to see a big drop in service costs as weak oil prices lead to less drilling and therefore less work for oil-field service providers. In order to fully utilize their equipment many service providers will likely reduce their prices as staying active is better than no work at all. Because of this trend Continental Resources said that it expects to see service costs decline by at least 15% by midyear and by at least 20% by year's end. Those same cost reductions should flow Whiting's way as well as it's now larger than Continental in the Bakken. The combination of those cost reductions as well as a continuation in optimizing its drilling should help Whiting's bid to get its well costs down and its returns up.
Whiting Petroleum might be down, but its CEO wants investors to know that it's not out of the game. The company plans to become more efficient this year while focusing on getting its costs down. If it's successful in this approach the company could make more money and continue to grow even if oil prices don't recover anytime soon.
Matt DiLallo has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.