Is Ophir Energy plc or Soco International plc today's top oil play?

Ophir Energy

As global demand slips and supply rises, the oil price is falling again. Brent crude has now dipped below $45 a barrel for the first time since May. Which of these two stocks is better equipped to survive?

Lacking energy

It's been a turbulent year for investors in Asia and Africa-focused gas and oil explorer Ophir Energy(LSE: OPHR). First, they had to endure January's market storms, which hammered its share price along with everybody else's. The oil price rebound may have settled their stomachs but then came April's bad news. And that was? Global oil services giant Schlumberger pulled out of its planned upstream participation in the Fortuna floating liquid natural gas (FLNG) project off East Guinea.

Ophir continues to trumpet the "world-class reservoirs" at the field and doggedly claims Schlumberger was one of just several options to develop them, but termination of discussions was a bitter blow, knocking 18% off its share price on the day.

Fortuna favours the brave

Break-even price on the Fortuna project has fallen to just $40 a barrel but finding alternative partners may prove even harder as crude slides and natural gas follows. Yet this hasn't deterred some analysts: last month Barclays named Ophir a top pick in the sector, impressed by a stock trading at a 49% discount to net asset value.

Ophir is solid enough with net cash of $355m the end of 2015, although that's markedly lower than $1.17bn a year earlier. It has reduced costs on Fortuna from $600m to between $450m-$500m and if management fulfils its promise of moving ahead with plans by the end of the year, sentiment could swing upwards again. However, we don't yet know whether it will fund the project through another equity partner, vendor financing or pre-sales of gas.

This uncertainty demands another leap of faith in a company whose share price has crashed from 519p to just 60p over the past four years. Every time energy prices fall, that leap becomes greater.

Soco, so good

What's this? An oil company share price is up 25% in the last month? Welcome to Soco International(LSE: SIA), a rare oasis of calm in an otherwise stormy sector. I did say relative: today's share price of 115p is roughly half its 52-week high of 200p.

Where the Vietnam-focused company scores is in its low cash operating costs of just $10 a barrel, giving it plenty of breathing space even if crude slides further. A strong balance sheet is a further point in its favour, with a year-end cash balance of $103.6m and no debt. Better still, 2016 exploration and development programme is fully funded from existing cash resources.

Dividend pipeline

Soco yields 1.35%, is flush enough to have returned $383.6m to shareholders over the past three years, and is lining up a potential special dividend in the second half of this year. You have to admire an oil explorer that puts shareholders first, as Soco has consistently done.

The rewards look set to flow next year, with pre-tax profits forecast to leap from £7.28m to £47.17m, and earnings per share rising 111% from 0.05p to 5.55p. The yield is forecast to hit 3.3% by the end of 2017. This is one oil company that seems immune to the crude fact of a sliding oil price.

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Harvey Jones has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has no position in any of the shares mentioned. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

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