By Braden Reddall
July 18 (Reuters) - Quarterly profits tripled at Noble Corp , the owner of the world's third-largest offshore drilling fleet, as costly downtime decreased and revenue grew with the debut of new rigs in Brazil and the Gulf of Mexico.
Work off the U.S. Gulf Coast has led to new deals for some of Noble's competitors too. On Wednesday, Transocean said it landed a $595,000-per-day contract for one of its ultra-deepwater rigs there, while Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc said it struck a deal for a deepwater unit under construction.
Activity has been ramping up for a month in the Gulf of Mexico, which will be busier this year than at any other point since the Deepwater Horizon spill more than two years ago.
Chief Executive David Williams credited Noble's strong performance last quarter to both the new rigs and a reduction in unpaid downtime across the fleet. Average rig utilization in the quarter improved to 76 percent from 70 percent a year before.
"Despite economic uncertainty and the corresponding pressure on commodity prices during the second quarter, we remain confident in the long-term outlook for our business," Williams said. "Our backlog continues to expand and we are benefiting from growing visibility into the latter part of this decade."
Noble said its second-quarter net profit surged to $160 million, or 63 cents per share, from $54 million, or 21 cents per share, a year ago. Revenue grew 43 percent to $899 million.
Excluding one-time items, the Switzerland-based company earned 59 cents per share, compared with the average of 57 cents expected by analysts, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Prior to the results, Noble shares rose 2.6 percent. They are up 17 percent so far in 2012, similar to Diamond. Transocean's shares have risen 22 percent and Ensco's have gained 6 percent. Diamond reports earnings on Thursday, Ensco a week after that, while Transocean is due in early August.
Transocean said in its fleet status report on Wednesday the Deepwater Deep Seas was hired by Murphy Oil at $595,000 per day starting next March, in another sign of strong deepwater demand when compared with its previous $450,000 rate. Off Africa, the Transocean Marianas got 280 days of work at a $530,000 day rate, up from $450,000 before, starting in December.
Transocean is certifying well control equipment across its fleet, and has done so for 36 of its 63 active floating rigs. It named two more midwater rigs to be pulled out for certification this year, while in 2013 it would do so for two ultra-deepwater units, three deepwater rigs, and seven in the midwater class.
Diamond said that its Ocean Onyx, a rig under construction in Texas, would start a one-year contract with Apache in the third quarter of 2013 at a $490,000 day rate -- strong when its 6,000-feet water-depth rating is compared with the 10,000-feet capability of the ultra-deepwater rigs.