Halliburton Co., Baker Hughes Inc. and Weatherford International Ltd. all reported solid quarterly and year-end earnings last week, but there is concern about how quickly Gulf of Mexico (GOM) business will return to normal, management teams said.

Houston-based Halliburton’s complex drilling technology, considered key in tapping into shale gas and oil basins, is expected to help drive strong performance through 2011 as high oil prices drive demand for global drilling, CEO Dave Lesar told analysts during a conference call. To prepare, the world’s second largest oilfield services operator after Schlumberger Ltd. is pouring money into new technology and has ramped up equipment manufacturing.

“These key investments reflect our strong belief that we are on the verge of a major upcycle in spending by our customers and will be a necessary step to meet our growth, return and margin goals,” Lesar told analysts. “Beyond the dramatic recovery in the North America market, our performance reflects the successful execution of our strategy and our commitment to deliver superior growth and returns to our shareholders.”

Halliburton’s GOM operations reported losses in 4Q2010 from a year earlier but North American revenue still soared 83% as longer-term contracts and onshore shale drilling operations drove growth.

“In North America revenue and operating income increased 10% sequentially, outpacing the United States rig count growth of 4%,” Lesar noted. “The increase in horizontal drilling and activity in liquids-rich plays continued to drive service intensity leading to the highest United States revenue in the company’s history. This 10% sequential growth is particularly noteworthy given the significant offsetting impact on revenue and operating income due to the fourth quarter decrease of activity in the Gulf of Mexico.”

North American onshore business looks solid in the near term but Lesar is less optimistic as to when the GOM business will return to pre-moratorium levels.

“We don’t see much going on in the first half of 2011 in the Gulf of Mexico,” he told analysts. However, Halliburton plans to maintain its offshore infrastructure and workforce because many of its largest customers remain committed to the region, he added.

“With the third quarter completion of the Macondo relief effort, we experienced a significant fourth quarter decline in revenue and income in the Gulf of Mexico resulting in a quarterly loss in our Gulf of Mexico operations. We continue to believe that prospects for a recovery in the Gulf of Mexico will remain uncertain through the first half of 2011 and perhaps the full year. However, I believe it is prudent to maintain all of our infrastructure and most of our headcount in anticipation of a rebound in the Gulf. This may result in ongoing losses in the Gulf of Mexico until the rig count recovers.”

Halliburton continued to see “pricing improvements” in the final three months of 2010 that offset higher costs in labor, freight and materials, the CEO said. “Our United States land operations experienced continued improved profitability in the fourth quarter. We are focused on capturing efficiencies through our supply chain and in the field through the reinvention of our service delivery platform, which we believe will result in sustaining our North American margin leadership position.”

North American operators in 2011 plan to make unconventional resource development their top investment, and that bodes well for Halliburton, said Lesar.

“Development of these resources requires expansive well programs resulting in longer-term contracting arrangements for some services. We continue to expect that we can improve prices in select basins where the demand for our integrated services is robust. This will provide us with growth opportunities in revenue and operating income in 2011.”

Profits and revenue for Houston’s Baker Hughes hit record highs in the final three months of 2010, credited to ongoing strength in onshore North American drilling. However, the services operator is “concerned” about the pace of offshore permit approvals in the GOM, said CEO Chad C. Deaton.

Ongoing permit delays in the GOM, particularly in the deepwater, has led many operators to increase workover activity “in order to offset production declines from existing fields,” said Deaton. “In the fourth quarter 2010, we benefited from increased share of the incremental workover and completion activity as well as increased interest in drilling deep high-pressure, high-temperature wells on the [Outer Continental Shelf]. However, we remain concerned about the pace of permit approval, for both deepwater and shelf drilling, which continues to weigh on the outlook for the Gulf of Mexico.”

Chevron Corp. CEO John Watson also expressed his concerns on Friday about the pace of offshore drilling (see related story). Despite the slowdown in the U.S. offshore, Baker Hughes management is forecasting gains in the U.S. rig count this year. The Houston-based operator publishes one of the leading rig count summaries.

With more drillers turning to liquids-rich and oily shale plays, Baker Hughes is forecasting a 200-plus jump in the 2011 U.S. rig count from 2010 to 1,740. Last year Baker Hughes said the “actual” U.S. rig count was 1,548. In Canada the rig count this year is expected to be 340, which is down from last year’s actual rig count of 348.

Meanwhile, Swiss-based services operator Weatherford International Ltd. said “continued gains in the U.S. land market coupled with robust Canadian activity levels led to higher sequential results. Oil-directed drilling and liquid-rich plays continued to drive activity levels higher, while reduced GOM operations weighted negatively on region results. The Artificial Lift, Drilling Services and Stimulation and Chemicals product lines contributed strong results for the quarter.”

Halliburton reported quarterly profits of $605 million (66 cents/share), from $243 million (27 cents) in 4Q2009. Continuing operations earnings rose to 68 cents/share. Total revenue year/year (y/y) jumped 40% to $5.16 billion, and operating margin was up to 19% from 11.6%.

Baker Hughes’ net income in 4Q2010 jumped more than three-fold (y/y) to $335 million (77 cents/share), compared with $84 million (27 cents) in 4Q2009 and $255 million (59 cents) in 3Q2010. Revenue climbed 82% to $4.42 billion, versus $2.43 billion in the year-ago period and up 8% sequentially. Results included the integration of shale provider BJ Services, which was completed by Baker Hughes last May.

Weatherford said operating income from U.S. and Canadian operations totaled $252 million versus $42 million in the year-ago period, and it was up $51 million, or 25%, sequentially. The current quarter’s margins in North America improved 180 basis points to more than 20%.

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