Kinder Morgan (NYSE:KMI) is scheduled to report its fourth-quarter results after markets close on Wednesday. It will be a highly anticipated release given what has transpired over the past quarter. Here's a closer look at three key areas for the energy giant this quarter.

A quick review
Before we look ahead, let's take a quick look back at Kinder Morgan's third-quarter report, which was really the start of the company's trouble. While Kinder Morgan announced solid distributable cash flow of $1.1 billion, or $0.51 per share, that result was a bit lighter than the market was hoping, and it put the company's distribution coverage ratio at a very tight 1.0 times, meaning it paid out everything it made last quarter. Furthermore, the company was showing weakness across a couple of its five business units:

Data source: Kinder Morgan earnings release. Chart by author. Dollar figures in millions.

While Kinder Morgan's key natural gas pipeline segment's earnings were roughly flat, its carbon dioxide and Canada segments were noticeably weaker due to weak oil prices and a strong U.S. dollar. That weakness was a concern because the company's financials were already tight.

This led Kinder Morgan to tame its 2016 dividend growth expectations from firm 10% growth to a range of 6% to 10%. That change, while slight, was one that the market didn't like this one bit. Investors sold off shares amid fears that the company was in trouble. These fears then became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with Kinder Morgan eventually choosing to capitulate and slash its dividend 75% because it could no longer access external capital to fund its project backlog.

Now, here's what to watch in Kinder Morgan's fourth-quarter earnings report.

1. Watch for changes to the backlog
That backlog is a key for the company because it's what drives cash-flow growth. That's why investors should keep an eye on any major changes to the makeup of the backlog. We saw a couple notable changes last quarter, with the backlog falling by a net $700 million to $21.3 million because the company completed $400 million in projects and removed $1 billion another in projects, but only added $700 million in new projects. This quarter, investors should watch for any more big removals from the backlog due to project cancellations.

Image source: Kinder Morgan investor presentation. 

In particular, investors should keep an eye on the Canada segment, which houses the company's Trans Mountain Pipeline. Kinder Morgan currently plans to invest $5.4 billion to expand that pipeline's capacity. However, it faces stiff opposition, and recently British Colombia said that the company has not met the conditions it set out for approval, and therefore it recommends that the pipeline be rejected. This latest setback could cause the company to scratch the project off its backlog.

2. Keep an eye on shut-ins
The price of oil and gas has fallen sharply over the past few months, which is putting a lot of pressure on producers. Some are finding that they can no longer make any money on some of their wells are therefore shutting in these wells. In Canada, for example, Baytex Energy (OTC:BTEG.F) halted all drilling activity and shut-in 2,400 BOE/d of uneconomical production during the third quarter. That including Baytex Energy's Cliffdale Cyclical Steam Stimulation project, which was suspended late in the quarter. Baytex Energy, however, is just one of a growing number of companies shutting in production in North America, which potentially could lead to lower volumes flowing through Kinder Morgan's pipelines and, depending on the contract, lower revenue into its coffers. 

3. Look for any word on potential debt reduction
One of the big concerns that investors have with Kinder Morgan is its ability to manage its debt through the current environment. This was a major driver behind its decision to reduced the dividend, because in doing so, it wouldn't need to issue any additional debt in 2016 to fund its capex. That would allow the company to reduce its leverage, with it targeting to get it back below 5.5 times EBITDA by the end of 2016 and even lower in subsequent years. That being said, with such a large debt level, investors should look to see if Kinder Morgan has any intentions to seek alternatives (such as asset sales) that would accelerate its deleveraging. 

Investor takeaway
Given what's going on in the energy market, not much attention will be paid to Kinder Morgan's actual fourth-quarter results. Instead, the focus will be on how the market turmoil will impact the company going forward. Any surprises could lead to even more volatility. 

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.