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Earnings season will be soon upon us. And this time, it'll be from an annual perspective. Houston-based ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) should tentatively come out with its annual results on Wednesday. Let's take a look at how things have stacked up for this company and see if 2012 should be any different.
Exploration and production
The first three quarters of 2011 saw growing revenues because of higher crude oil prices. In the first nine months, E&P revenues rose by 14.6% compared with the same period of 2010. I expect this trend to continue in the fourth quarter as well. However, production fell by 7.5% in the corresponding periods, which is of some concern. Average production in the first nine months stood at 1.63 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. In the fourth quarter, management expects production to average a still lower 1.57 million Boe/d.
At this point, higher prices are seemingly here to stay, which should definitely help compensate for lower production. The proposed spin-off of the refining and marketing division will definitely add some pressure on the E&P arm. The privilege of higher cash flows from the R&M arm will be missing. So, to bank only on external market conditions to fuel growth isn't a great idea to begin with. Net production has fallen in the past three years, and I'm not really expecting production to shoot up drastically in 2012.
Refining and marketing
This segment has contributed to a whopping 77% of total revenues in the first nine months of 2011 -- up from 73% in the corresponding period of 2010. I'm pretty bullish about its mid-continental refineries since they have the capacity to process both sweet and sour crude, including the heavy sour crude. Additionally, with Canada as one of the sources for heavy crude oil input, any growth in imports should see improved capacity utilization, which stands at an average of 92% in the U.S.
The crack spread, which measures the difference between market prices for refined products and crude oil, has increased in the past few months. The main reason behind this has been the fact that WTI crude has been trading at a discount to its counterparts like Brent. Hence, the mid-continental refineries -- being fed with the WTI variant -- have performed relatively better, and I expect this trend to continue in the next few months.
And that is why, I believe, all mid-continental refiners should see major growth prospects in the coming year. Western Refining (NYSE: WNR ) has been operating its El Paso and Yorktown refineries, with total throughput volumes yet to reach maximum capacity. Similarly, Marathon Petroleum (NYSE: MPC ) -- with its refineries in Grayville, La., and Texas -- is another refiner that I've been bullish about lately for exactly the same reason.
Foolish bottom line
Conoco's refining segment looks fantastic, while its E&P arm has some work to do. To remain up to date on news and analysis on this stock for the coming year, you can start now adding ConocoPhillips to your watchlist.