Picking a Favorite Driller: Noble, Ensco

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 |  Includes: ESVIF, HAWKQ, NBL, NE, XOM
by: Toby Shute

The tragic events surrounding Transocean's (NYSE: RIG) Deepwater Horizon rig are certainly going to overshadow any of the earnings reports coming out of the sector. Even so, it's worth checking in on two of the top operators in the space to see how the offshore drilling market is shaping up for 2010.

Noble (NYSE: NE) described the current environment as "somewhat challenging," with 14 jackups repricing at an average of 19% below their previous contract terms. Fortunately, Noble has a group of deepwater rigs working at premium rates for clients like Noble Energy (NYSE: NBL) and ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) that cushion the effects of the weakened shallow-water drilling market. You can imagine how jackup-only contractors like Seahawk Drilling (Nasdaq: HAWK) are faring.

One recent point of concern on the part of drilling market observers surrounds a current tender process by Pemex, which requires that some bidders' rigs be quite new. That could theoretically put some of Noble's older rigs out of work. The company reassured everyone on the conference call that Pemex needs jackups, and that the company's future in Mexico is not in jeopardy.

Noble closed out the quarter with $848 million in cash. With new-build projects being delayed or failing to materialize altogether, the firm is looking to return more cash to shareholders. Up for vote at the upcoming annual meeting is both an increase in the regular dividend, and a special dividend. Basically, the company has more money than it knows what to do with. There are worse problems to have.

With $1.2 billion in the bank, worthy adversary Ensco (NYSE: ESV) shares this "problem." In conjunction with the firm's earnings release, the driller hiked its annual dividend from $0.10 to $1.40. I view this as a wonderful commitment to financial discipline on management's part. As DryShips (Nasdaq: DRYS) has demonstrated, it's easy to get excited about this business and throw a bunch of money around. It takes real restraint not to go overboard.

Between Noble and Ensco, I'd be hard pressed to pick a favorite. You know I think they're two of the best energy stocks out there. I expect shareholders of either firm to fare very well over the long haul, even if things get a little hairy next year. If you've sided with one or the other, I'd be interested to hear your reasoning in the comments section below.

Disclosure: No positions