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In his coverage of Halliburton's (NYSE: HAL ) quarterly results, my colleague David Lee Smith predicted that Big Oil, much like the leading service companies, would be quite positive on 2010. Let's step through three key reports and see if that forecast holds true.
A prodigious producer
Chevron (NYSE: CVX ) had a very strong year operationally, with oil and gas production rising 7%. That's a sizzling figure when it comes to integrated oil companies of this size. Chevron also reported a 112% reserve replacement ratio, though it's not clear where that number would have come in without relaxed reporting rules on oil sands reserve bookings.
As for 2010, the company is projecting a very modest production bump of just 1%. Chevron's capital and exploratory budget will also take a dip. The year ahead may not be a standout, but there are pockets of excitement. The company is clearly bullish on Brazil, where it's recently tapped McDermott to begin major construction work on the Papa Terra project, which is joint ventured with Petrobras (NYSE: PBR ) . The two Australian LNG projects, Gorgon and Wheatstone, will command a fair chunk of capex next year. The deepwater Gulf of Mexico is also a hot spot, and Chevron confirmed on its conference call that it exercised its preemption rights on Devon Energy's proposed sale of a 25% stake in the St. Malo field.
An over-achiever …
Turning to ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) , upstream production wasn't as eye-popping as Chevron's, but the firm continued to execute at its typically high level. The company directed nearly as much cash to dividends and share repurchases as to reinvestment in the business, highlighting both the firm's cash generation prowess and limited opportunity set.
Of course, ExxonMobil did find one attractive outsized target in the form of XTO Energy (NYSE: XTO ) . That acquisition, if successfully completed, will dramatically boost the firm's presence in unconventional gas. Of course, the firm already has quite a large leasehold, with 5.5 million net acres under its belt. But XTO brings a lot of production -- and just as important, a lot of experience -- to the table.
For those wondering whether Exxon is changing their focus, the company had this to say: "We are not shifting away from oil to gas." The company won't discuss its 2010 outlook until next month, but one development to watch on the oil side is the firm's Kearl project, being developed jointly with Imperial Oil. Another is the further delineation of Exxon's Hadrian discovery, which neighbors Anadarko Petroleum's highly promising Lucius field in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico.
... and a rising star
Finally, let's check in on one of the super majors from across the pond. BP (NYSE: BP ) saw a lot of things go right in 2009. The firm got its massive Thunder Horse field got up and running, hit a giant gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, and won a bid to get busy in Iraq. No wonder David Lee Smith was moved to dub this company the new star of the Big Oil show back in October.
As for the numbers, 2009 upstream production lifted more than 4%. Refining was a stinker, as it was for Valero Energy, ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) , and everyone else in the business. Overall, the results were probably better than anyone would have expected a year ago. Still, BP's fourth-quarter results were not very well received this week. It probably didn't help that the firm projected a decline in 2010 production and a continuation of weak refining margins.
As with ExxonMobil, BP won't give a full 2010 outlook until next month's strategy meeting. But it's clear that 2010 is more significant for final investment decisions at fields like Chirag in Azerbaijan and Horn Mountain in the Gulf of Mexico than it is for new project startups. That doesn't mean further exploration successes can't set off fireworks for the firm, of course.
As for the macro outlook, chief executive Tony Hayward called for a "slow and gradual" recovery for the U.S. and European economies, which seems about the best we can hope for. While that's not ideal, each of the above firms is well-equipped to pursue its long-term plans even in the midst of a relatively weak economy. That's just one of the benefits of being Big Oil.