Noble Energy (NBL) - Get Report said on Friday that drilling at its 50%-owned Gulf of Mexico Silvergate exploration prospect failed to uncover marketable production and that it will plug and abandon the dry hole and redeploy the rig there to its 38%-owned Katmai oil discovery.
The dry hole is the company's fourth in the last year and a half, making what wouldn't normally be such a big deal -- oil and gas companies drill dry holes all the time -- more of a concern.
According to energy-focused investment bank Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. analysts, Noble's other three recent dry holes are the Cheetah prospect announced in September in Cameroon, the Humpback prospect in October in the Falkland Islands and the Madison prospect in the Gulf of Mexico in January. While they said the news is "inconsequential" to Noble's stock valuation, it is, "a hit to company's offshore sentiment, which has already taken a series of blows."
Indeed, the development doesn't take away from the fact that the company -- which is led by former BP executive David Stover -- is considered one of the top independent oil and gas exploration and production companies and is expected to survive the industry downturn.
Piper Jaffray & Co. unit Simmons & Co. International has long counted Noble among its core holdings. Analyst David Kistler said Monday he's adjusting his earnings target for the company lower based on higher operating expenses related to Silvergate. But he added that Noble's ability to expand production this year and next by around 1% (including its $3.9 billion acquisition of Rosetta Resources Inc. last year) while living within cash inflows (including a $200 million divestiture expected in the first half of this year) reinforce his belief that the company's diversified asset base and management of short and long-term projects provide a solid platform to traverse various commodity cycles. "Ultimately, we believe NBL's valuation, balance sheet, significant liquidity and optionality...offer a compelling investment for the long-term (12-month) energy investor," he said.
Noble faces other hurdles too. It's still awaiting a framework for its Leviathan project off the coast of Israel from Israeli government officials (which it expects by year-end) and the sale of part of its 36% working interest in the Tamar natural gas field, according to a April 6 note by Jefferies analyst Jonathan Wolff who visited with the company recently. "We came away with an optimistic view of NBL's outlook," he said.