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The Williston Basin is a hot area of exploration and production that oil and gas analyst Jason Wangler follows from his SunTrust Robinson Humphrey office in Houston. In this exclusive interview with The Energy Report, he shares his thoughts on the near-term prospects for oil and gas demand and prices, and tells us about several attractively priced names with good upside potential from current levels.

The Energy Report: Thanks for joining us today, Mr. Wangler. You and your associate, Neal Dingmann of SunTrust Robinson Humphrey, follow quite a number of energy stocks as well as the oil and gas markets in general. Oil prices have been relatively stable over the last few months with oil in the $90-$100/barrel (bbl.) range, and gas in the $4.20-$4.80/thousand cubic feet (Mcf) range. What are your expectations for the oil and gas markets in the next 6 to 12 months?

Jason Wangler: I think we're really going to see a lot more of the same trading ranges. In the last couple of years, the economy, especially in the United States, has been building back from the terrible situation of late 2008 and early 2009. In 2009 and 2010, we were growing slowly and getting back to a level that was making more sense. But now that we've gotten a little more than halfway through 2011, there are still a lot of issues here in the United States. The debt ceiling and budget crisis and the general concerns with the economy not growing as fast as people expected have all had their effects.

We see the Brent crude prices $15 to $20 ahead of where the West Texas intermediate (WTI) oil prices are here in the States because there is excess supply in the U.S. right now and not as much expected demand for that oil. If you look at gas, it's very much the same way, not only in the U.S. but worldwide. The other countries around the world would love to have the amount of natural gas that we have. The U.S. is blessed with the riches of natural gas from its shale plays. So you're probably going to see gas stay in the $4-$5/Mcf range and, I think, probably below $4.50/Mcf for the most part, until we have either a demand or supply change that's very dramatic. That would probably have to come from the demand side either in exporting natural gas or additional uses, whether it be for vehicles or heating more homes or something of that nature.

TER: It's interesting how the whole gas situation has turned around because there was all this talk a few years ago about building ports to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) and now we're talking about exporting LNG.

JW: It is amazing. The "shale revolution" has really changed the dynamic for a fuel that was very hard to come by but can't be easily transported. You have to build these very large, expensive ship-loading facilities. Some people looked at the market in the U.S at the time and wanted to build import facilities because we would need them and we've leaned on Canada and Mexico for quite a few years to supply us with natural gas. Now we have so much at $4/Mcf, we wish those countries would need some of ours. Exporting LNG could start to balance out how much oil we have to import.

TER: Looking at your coverage list, some of the stocks are under $0.50 with market caps under $20 million (M), and others are big institutional favorites that trade above $100 with market caps over $50 billion (B). How do you decide which companies you want to follow?

JW: My colleague Neal Dingmann and I look for names and stories that interest us. We look at the management teams as well as where the assets are located and actually break our coverage down based on specific basins. I cover the Williston Basin in North Dakota and everything west. He covers Eagle Ford in Texas and everything east. And then we try to cover a group of names in each basin in different life cycles of each play. It could be one that's just a very early entrant, which may have a $100M market cap, such as a Voyager Oil & Gas Inc. (VOG) in the Williston, up to somebody who's in the $10B+ range, such as a Continental Resources Inc. (CLR) or a Whiting Petroleum Corporation (WLL).

TER: You seem to be quite hot on the Williston Basin. Tell us why you like it so much.

JW: It's one of the most economic and best resources that we have, not only in the U.S., but, really, in the world. There's lots of running room and we're very early into the play with lots of acreage still to be drilled. We could be up there for 50 or more years drilling very, very strong wells and putting lots of oil into U.S. tanks. The Eagle Ford and the Utica in Ohio have interesting and up-and-coming plays, but the Williston really has been shown to be as economic as any other, if not the best. It's always nice to be in an asset that has the best type of results.

TER: A lot of these Williston stocks that you've recommended in the last few months have had some respectable moves. Is there still some good upside available there?

JW: I think there still is. The winter was colder than usual in North Dakota and Montana. After the winter season they had floods, which caused a lot of problems throughout the Midwest in general, starting up in North Dakota and Montana.

So, there were a lot of problems with shut-ins. They couldn't work at the same pace they typically had been able to so production numbers were not as high as expected. Wells were not coming in on the expected timeframe. So, some of these stocks took a significant hit. The weather has been good since the beginning of June. Now we're really starting to see some very impressive rates. Going through the second quarter earnings season, when we start hearing these names report, I think people are going to understand why they're going to be a little bit lower than we originally expected entering the year.

Today, a month or two since the weather improved, we are able to say that this is a resource that makes sense. And as long as the weather works, we can really start churning out some very impressive numbers. So, I look for the Williston names to really have some impressive growth rates, not only for the full year, but, mostly based on just the second half of this year, because the weather has finally started to cooperate.

TER: Can you tell us about some small-cap names you particularly like at this point?

JW: One of them is a very early stage play in the Williston called Kodiak Oil & Gas Corp. (KOG). The company has about 100,000 net acres at this point and is really starting to turn on a lot of wells. It should actually be able to start talking more and more about some very impressive production growth rates, not only for this year but next year. In the next couple of quarters, Kodiak could double production in only one quarter because it is able to bring on three, four or five wells. It currently has a couple of rigs running and will be moving to five rigs by the end of this year. Next year, 2012, we should see explosive growth much as we saw from Brigham Exploration Company (BEXP) a few years ago. So, I look at Kodiak as an earlier stage play in the Williston with a very nice acreage position and cash on the books. When the additional rigs start running, it's just a matter of focusing on operations and getting the oil out of the ground.

One other one is GeoResources Inc. (GEOI). It's a very interesting small company with a strong management team and a great balance sheet. The company has been around for quite some time and has been able to put together nice positions in both the Williston and the Eagle Ford. It's just starting to drill now on those positions as the operator. It has a couple of wells in the Bakken that weren't as great as maybe some other results. But, I think you will see some better results coming out of there as the company comes to understand the resource. Then down in the Eagle Ford, GeoResources just reported some very impressive results a few weeks ago coming out of the Gonzalez County area, a little bit further north than most people thought the Eagle Ford to be. It has some good partners and I think you'll continue to see it be able to add rigs and really start moving that production level much higher.

TER: What else do you like?

JW: Another one that makes a lot of sense to me is Gulfport Energy Corp. (GPOR). The company is in the Utica Shale as well as a lot of other places. Utica has become a play that everyone's really curious about and Chesapeake Energy Corporation (CHK) is really the only other one that's talked about Utica very frequently. According to Chesapeake, Utica has the potential to be better than the Eagle Ford. It will be very interesting to see as we start getting some results out of that Ohio area. Gulfport is also drilling wells in south Louisiana and in the Permian Basin of Texas, and in the Niobrara in the Rockies. It also has some oil sands in Canada. Gulfport has a lot of different very strong assets predominantly focused on oil. And it's been able to keep the production moving forward. So, I think that the good asset base will continue to turn into better and better cash flows moving forward.

TER: Any other low-priced ones you like?

JW: One other one I like is Abraxas Petroleum Corp. (AXAS). It's a smaller name with a position in almost every interesting play that's not only already being produced in the U.S, but also a few others that are emerging as well. The company is in the Bakken area, the Eagle Ford and the Niobrara. It's also in a couple of other plays including a small one called the Alberta Basin in Montana that's becoming more and more exciting as Newfield Exploration Company (NFX) and Rosetta Resources Inc. (ROSE) start to do a little more work there. Abraxas is really a very good company getting out there early and picking up some acreage. Now it's focusing on drilling that acreage, getting the production to the market and then growing its cash flows. But it's one that I think is very interesting from an asset standpoint. With a stock price under $5, this is one you could really look at as a nice entry point into quite a few different interesting plays.

TER: You also cover Venoco Inc. (VQ). Do you have any thoughts on it?

JW: Venoco is an interesting story but the company has had a tough year so far. It's in the Monterey Shale in California. It and Occidental Petroleum Corp. (OXY), are really the only two companies that are in that play in size, at least that we hear about on a regular basis. It's taken the company a little bit longer than I think it would have hoped for. Tim Marquez is a smart guy and he's been the CEO for quite some time. But the play has just really not come along quite as quickly as it had expected. Venoco has got some solid assets and solid production but the stock's really gotten hit pretty hard over the past six months or so.

A lot of people are banking on this Monterey Shale becoming a very interesting and substantial shale play, and it just hasn't done that yet. I think ultimately it will work, whether it's Venoco or somebody else out there. I think Venoco has a great position. But, like a lot of other things, it just takes a little bit more time than we or even the company would like to see and so we've seen the stock come down. But it's starting to get a lot more interesting down here in the sub-$12 range. I think it'll start looking a little better as production ramps up and Venoco gets a little further up the learning curve on the Monterey Shale.

TER: So, generally, what are your expectations for the coming months that people ought to be aware of, concerned about or hopeful for, as far as investing in oil and gas stocks?

JW: The last few quarters really have all been very strong for the entire industry. Oil prices have been very healthy but gas prices not necessarily as much. The biggest questions have really been the macro situation. Is the economy going to grow? Is there going to be a situation like we had a few years ago where oil just absolutely fell off of a cliff? If it can stay in a range bound area, it will be much easier to make smart decisions on a company-to-company basis regarding who you really like and why you like them, as opposed to the whole industry having to come down.

I think that the industry right now is still severely undervalued, probably closer to the $70–$75/bbl. range for these stock prices versus oil trading in the $80-95/bbl. range. That's because there's a fear that the economy is going to pull down the market and oil and the stocks are just going to have to come down because higher oil prices have taken a toll on potential growth.

But the $90/bbl.+ range is a fair range. I think it makes sense as far as the world economy and I think that there's still enough room for the country to grow, in terms of GDP and everything else, to keep these stocks moving and to keep oil prices where they should be. So, I think there's a lot of room for these stocks to move. I would just continue to watch what the economy and oil prices do because those are going to be your two big drivers as, right now, these companies are making a lot of money at this $90-$95/bbl. range.

TER: So, to sum up, as far as you're concerned, there's more upside at this point than there is downside.

JW: Yes, I think so. For the companies, there's a lot of upside and not as much downside. The assets they should be able to find with these shale plays are very repeatable. They are capital intensive but as long as the companies can maintain a good balance sheet, you're safe there. At this point you're in a price area where you really need to pick one or two that you want to get into and get comfortable with their management teams. The biggest overriding factor at this point is going to be what oil prices do. And what drives that is what the economies, not only here but across the world, are going to do. That's the thing I think is going to be the most important factor.

And, like you said about the upside, I think one other thing that's interesting and that could be one of those big upside drivers is that there's going to be a lot more consolidation. Many of these smaller names will get picked up by larger names that have a lot of cash and want to find a way to grow their production and cash flows further. They need to go out to these new emerging plays in order to do that. So, I think you're going to see continued consolidation in the market, which I think again, would be very positive for investors who go into these smaller to mid-cap names that may be taken out by the larger names at a nice premium.

TER: That sounds like a pretty optimistic picture for people who are willing to take a shot at some of these promising deals.

JW: Absolutely.

TER: We appreciate your taking the time to talk to us this afternoon and all the good information you've given us, Jason.

JW: Thank you.

Jason Wangler has over five years of equity research experience focused on the exploration and production (E&P) and oilfield services sectors of the energy space. Jason previously worked at Wunderlich Securities Inc. and Dahlman Rose & Company before moving to SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. He also previously worked at Netherland, Sewell & Associates, Inc. as a Petroleum Analyst. He received his master's in business administration from the University of Houston, where he was also named the 2007 Finance Student of the Year. He received his bachelor of science degree in business administration with a focus on finance from the University of Nevada, where he was named the 2003 Silver Scholar award winner for the College of Business Administration. In 2010, he was highlighted as a "Best on the Street" analyst by the Wall Street Journal and has been a guest on CNBC.

DISCLOSURE:

1) Brian Sylvester conducted this interview. He personally and/or his family own shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: None.

2) The following companies mentioned in the interview are sponsors of The Energy Report: None.

3) Jason Wangler: I personally and/or my family own shares of the following companies mentioned in this interview: None. I personally and/or my family am paid by the following companies mentioned in this interview: None.

Source: Jason Wangler: Williston Basin Stocks Are Hot