Lower costs in the Denver-Julesburg (DJ) Basin and a larger than expected inventory of uncompleted wells in the Marcellus Shale at the end of the first quarter have Noble Energy Inc. shifting more capital back to Colorado and increasing its full-year guidance slightly.
The company's onshore assets, primarily in the DJ Basin, pushed first quarter production up 11% compared to the year-ago period. The lifting schedule, downtime for maintenance and an asset sale in China at its offshore projects overseas kept those volumes lower over the period in a trend that's expected to continue in the second quarter.
In the DJ Basin, where Noble is one of the leading oil producers, the company is now averaging seven days from spud to rig release for a standard 5,200 foot lateral well -- "almost as fast as we used to drill vertical wells," said CEO David Stover.
"Reduced drilling times are resulting in an increased number of wells that can be completed this year," he said of DJ Basin operations. "We are reallocating some capital here to keep up with the drilling pace, supplementing our one full-time completion crew with a second completion crew in the second half of the year. These efficiencies, along with supplier cost reductions are driving a downward trend in our well costs."
Stover added that core wells in the basin are costing roughly $3.8 million, with savings from major suppliers of about 15-25% compared to last year's levels. Similar gains in the Marcellus, where a typical well costs about $8 million, will find the company shifting roughly $200 million back to Colorado. Noble’s capital budget will remain unchanged at $2.9 billion.
"Improvements in drilling times have resulted in a larger inventory of uncompleted wells than we had originally anticipated in both the operated and non-operated areas of the Marcellus," Stover said. "This affords us the opportunity to reduce rig count in the second half of the year to one operated rig and two non-operated rigs while still meeting our planned completion and production goals."
Executive Vice President of Operations Gary Willingham said the move will allow for "a few more completions" in the DJ Basin this year, but added that some would be deferred until 2016. Noble plans to continue running four rigs in the play and has increased the low end of its full-year guidance from 295,000 boe/d to 300,000-315,000 boe/d.
The company produced 318,000 boe/d last quarter, up slightly from the 315,000 boe/d it produced in the fourth quarter. Liquids production accounted for 53% of the company's volumes. Most of Noble's production, or 116,000 boe/d, came from the DJ Basin.
In the Marcellus Shale, where Noble has a joint venture with Consol Energy Inc., the company produced 393 MMcfe/d. Its offshore eastern Mediterranean assets produced 246 MMcfe/d, while other offshore rigs overseas and in the Gulf of Mexico produced a combined 91,000 boe/d.
The guidance beat, however, was not enough to insulate the company from sliding commodity prices. Lower consolidated natural gas and oil prices dented both profits and revenue. Year-over-year, Noble's realized oil price sank more than 50% to $45.96/bbl, while its realized natural gas price went from $3.83/Mcf to $2.81/Mcf. Losses on derivative contracts and a $27 million impairment on abandonment costs for offshore Israel fields brought down profits.
Revenue went from $1.4 billion in 1Q2014 to $759 million last quarter. The company recorded a net loss of $22 million (negative 6 cents/share), compared to net income of $200 million (55 cents/share) in the year-ago period and a profit of $402 million ($1.05/share) in the fourth quarter.