Conoco Shrinking to Get Bigger

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As usual, the scribes began with ConocoPhillips' (NYSE: COP  ) profit slide for the third quarter. But to my way of thinking, that's not the way we should be looking at the company's results. Rather, we should focus on planned asset sales, along with a restructuring of the company.

But to satisfy those for whom financial metrics are all-important, the nation's third-largest integrated oil and gas company, behind ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) , earned $1.5 billion, or $1.00 per share. Last year's numbers were $5.2 billion, or $3.39 per share, when oil and gas prices were much higher.

At the same time, Conoco's exploration and production climbed more than 5% year over year. Year-to-date total production, including its portion from LUKOIL -- the Russian company in which Conoco holds a 20% interest -- was 2.2 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.

As CEO Jim Mulva noted, however, "Although we operated well, we were adversely affected by low North American natural gas prices and worldwide refining margins." As a result, the company curtailed gas production and lowered its refinery runs. "Operating well" obviously includes Conoco's participation with BP (NYSE: BP  ) and Petrobras (NYSE: PBR  ) in the giant Tiber prospect in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Perhaps most important for the company was that it confirmed that it will divest about $10 billion in assets during the next couple of years and lower its capital spending by 12% to $11 billion in 2010. About 90% of the capital spending will be directed to exploration and production.

Mulva also said the company could legitimately be charged with "shrinking to grow." And as to specific properties that may be on the block, Mulva was noncommittal. While many had assumed that they would include its LUKOIL stake, he denied that was the case and pointed to some nonspecific exploration and production operations, along with some North American pipelines and terminals and selected southern North Sea properties.

Also for sale is Conoco's Syncrude oil sands interest. The project is located in Canada, and Murphy Oil (NYSE: MUR  ) is its only other U.S.-based owner.

The coming changes for ConocoPhillips will be intriguing. In the meantime, my inclination is to stop at observing the company. There appear to be better buys in, for instance, BP.

BP has been rated a five-star company by Motley Fool's CAPS players. Why not poke around its CAPS page and learn more about it?

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies above. He does welcome your questions or comments. Petroleo Brasileiro is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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