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Noble Energy's plan of efficient growth resonates with investors

Shares of Noble Energy Inc. shot up more than 10% on Feb. 20 after the company easily beat fourth-quarter 2017 profit expectations and announced plans to increase production by more than 10% while cutting its budget approximately in half.

Noble reported adjusted net income for the quarter of $156 million, or 32 cents per common share. That easily surpassed the S&P Market Intelligence consensus estimate calling for normalized net income of 4 cents per share. The company announced before its earnings call Feb. 20 that it would spend 70% of its 2018 CapEx budget on U.S. shale plays, with the overall budget expected to be between $2.7 billion and $2.9 billion, down from 2017's $5.59 billion. Still, the company anticipates growing production by 12%.

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"The growth engine is the Delaware Basin," Executive Vice President of Operations Gary Willingham said of the resource zone centered in West Texas. "With its exceptional economics and large inventory, the Delaware will deliver substantial growth every year over the plan and is the leading contributor to Noble's oil growth."

As a result of its purchases of Rosetta Resources Inc. in 2015 and Clayton Williams Energy Inc. in 2017, Noble has what executives called "a highly contiguous position" in the southern Delaware Basin.

"Prior to Noble's ownership of these assets, neither was set up for impactful growth. With the implementation of our integrated development plan philosophy, these assets are now positioned to realize their full potential," Willingham said. "With our integrated midstream approach, we're building the infrastructure that supports our long-term plans while significantly reducing capital investment and returning more value."

The company also spoke well of two of its other major onshore domestic assets, the Eagle Ford Shale in south Texas and the DJ Basin, contained mostly in Colorado.

"In the DJ Basin, we've delivered significant performance improvements over the past few years. The increased productivity from enhanced completions is driving greater capital efficiency. And over the next 3 years, the DJ Basin will deliver meaningful growth while generating significant free cash flow," Willingham said. "In the Eagle Ford, following rapid growth in 2017, we expect to maintain flat production year over year through 2020 while generating substantial free cash flow."

Noble said drilling and technology improvements had increased well productivity across the board, with the company reporting production increases of as much as 25% in some Delaware Basin wells while the cost for lateral well feet dropped by 35%.

"This [production] plan delivers very competitive growth for our onshore business with volumes growing at a compound annual rate of 25% over the next 3 years and oil growing even faster at 31%," Willingham said. "We expect to achieve those same volumes with $500 million of less capital, which speaks to the exceptional jobs the teams continue to do to deliver greater capital efficiency."

The quarterly results delighted shareholders. Noble stock was up 10%, at $28.90, in midafternoon trading Feb. 20 on the NYSE. It traded as high as $29.54 earlier in the day.