NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It's getting harder to overlook how the recent slide in energy prices is affecting 2015 spending plans. Crude oil has sunk to the $80 per barrel range and natural gas is down below $4 per thousand British thermal units. To shore up cash flows, more energy companies are cutting capital expenditures.
However, the slowdown in spending at ConocoPhillips (COP) - Get Free Report , Occidental Petroleum (OXY) - Get Free Report , Statoil (STO) , Exxon Mobil (XOM) - Get Free Report and Chevron (CVX) - Get Free Report to name a few, is shining a more favorable light on assets in the Bakken and Eagle Ford shale plays, areas offering higher returns and a quicker production growth profile than other shale regions.
The Marcellus shale play has been a very prolific play, but the best days in the region may well be over. Money has been pouring into the space since 2009; more competition means its going to be more costly. In fact, Chesapeake Energy (CHK) - Get Free Reportjust peeled out of both the Marcellus and Utica areas in a massive deal with Southwestern Energy (SWN) - Get Free Report .
The Utica play holds promise, but the State of New York still holds a moratorium on drilling, which has sidelined some investment. Other shale plays have their own concerns. While the Permian is attractive, production goals there are typically more long term. Haynesville has had declining production since 2012 and the tight gas formation of the Barnett makes it harder to get the gas out of the ground.
But troubles that dog those shale oil and gas plays don't seem to appear to the same degree in the Eagle Ford and Bakken. On the contrary, even companies reporting troubles in some regions are saying operations in these two areas are going strong.
That bodes well for EOG Resources (EOG) - Get Free Report with 520 net wells in 2014 in the Eagle Ford, according to its October corporate presentation. Another name standing to benefit from increased optimism for the Eagle Ford is Murphy Oil (MUR) - Get Free Report . The company just reported a quarterly record in the play exceeding 60,500 barrels of oil equivalent per day, up 15% from the second quarter this year. Carrizo Oil & Gas (CRZO) - Get Free Report is also building its position in the Eagle Ford.
While Hess (HES) - Get Free Report continues to evaluate its own capital expense plans since it has modeled $100 Brent for their planning purposes, it may end up lowering spending in Norway or in the Gulf of Mexico when it reveals plans during its upcoming November analyst day. With that said, it's also a name to watch in the Bakken. Hess just announced a 21% rise in net production in the region and the company is continuing to focus on low-cost/high return wells in the play.
James Volker, chairman, president and CEO of Whiting Petroleum (WLL) - Get Free Report , a huge Bakken/Three Forks play, said during its recent third-quarter earnings call, "Despite the recent pullback in oil prices, we remain confident in our outlook for continued strong growth in our production and reserves." Production averaged a record 87,480 barrels of oil equivalent per day in [the third quarter of 2014], an increase of 33% over the 66,015 barrels of oil equivalent per day in the third quarter of 2013 and a 9% increase sequentially. According to the company's recent earnings release, "the Bakken/Three Forks represented 75% of Whiting's total third quarter production."
Continental Resources (CLR) - Get Free Report , which does have operations in the Bakken, actually bucked industry trends and lifted spending in the Bakken. Harold Hamm, CEO of CLR, recently appeared on CNBC and said his company is not capping wells but can do so quickly if prices fall further. However, Hamm believes cutting back new drilling makes more sense than capping producing wells so existing operations in the Bakken should continue to ramp up.
The Bakken and Eagle Ford represent places where higher margins are still attainable and so make good overall strategic sense. In an energy sector scrambling to climb up a falling-down market, that's enough to ensure they remain growth areas for investors in 2015.
At the time of publication, the author had no positions in stocks mentioned.
This article is commentary by an outside contributor, separate from TheStreet's news coverage.
TheStreet Ratings team rates CONOCOPHILLIPS as a Buy with a ratings score of B+. TheStreet Ratings Team has this to say about their recommendation:
"We rate CONOCOPHILLIPS (COP) a BUY. This is driven by a few notable strengths, which we believe should have a greater impact than any weaknesses, and should give investors a better performance opportunity than most stocks we cover. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its expanding profit margins, good cash flow from operations and increase in net income. We feel these strengths outweigh the fact that the company has had lackluster performance in the stock itself."
You can view the full analysis from the report here: COP Ratings Report