ConocoPhillips' Earnings Only Flow Upstream

It's tough to hit a moving target. That, at least, was a finding yet again by analysts who persist in attempting to accurately forecast ConocoPhillips' (NYSE: COP  ) revenues and earnings amid a major and ongoing restructuring at the company.

For the third quarter of this year, the company reported a profit of $1.8 billion, or $1.46 per share. Those figures compared with $2.62 billion, or $1.91 per share, for the comparable period of 2011. However, if you correct for a sizable number of items in the reported results, the company earned $1.44 per share from continuing operations, versus $1.40 a year ago.

Close, but no cigar
As a result of the "for sale" signs figuratively having been hung on a number of Conoco's properties worldwide, the third quarter of 2011 included about $1.14 billion of contributions from discontinued operations. The resulting 21% by which the analysts underestimated the company's actual results represented an improvement from the whopping 67% underestimate in the second quarter.

The third quarter represented the first full period that ConocoPhillips has operated without downstream assets, which were spun off to Conoco shareholders with the formation on May 1 of Phillips 66 (NYSE: PSX  ) . The downstream company, which shares a building in Houston with Conoco, operates 15 refineries, 10,000 branded marketing outlets, and 15,000 pipeline miles. ConocoPhillips joined Marathon Oil (NYSE: MRO  ) in jettisoning its refining and marketing operations, and, in what apparently is a continuing trend, Murphy Oil (NYSE: MUR  ) has expressed an intention to follow suit.

During the quarter, ConocoPhillips produced an average of 1.525 million barrels of oil equivalent, compared with 1.538 million barrels a day for the third quarter of 2011. Despite higher output in China and Libya, normal field declines nevertheless were sufficient to result in the reduced year-on-year production. At the same time, crude oil price realizations slid to an average of $102.72 per barrel, a 3.6% reduction from the $106.61 in the comparable prior period. Natural gas realizations declined by 16%, resulting in Conoco's joining the likes of Chesapeake (NYSE: CHK  ) in reducing its gas output in North America.

Peddling hard
As to upstream asset sales, thus far in 2012 the company has generated $2.1 billion in proceeds from such transactions. By the conclusion of next year, management expects that figure to have grown to somewhere in the $8 billion to $10 billion range. Recent sales have includes an agreement with Russia's Lukoil for Conoco to sell its 30% stake in NaryanMarNefteGas, which, given its rather catchy name, you no doubt can identify as a gas company in Mother Russia.

Now the largest of the U.S.-based independents, Conoco is active in unconventional programs worldwide. At present, it's involved in such operations in the 48 contiguous states, in Canada, and in the Canning Basin of Western Australia. Further, it has exercised its option to acquire a 70% interest in Lane Energy Poland. It's operating three Baltic Basin concessions in Poland, where it is currently drilling a fourth well and is significantly expanding its infrastructure.

Conversely, as I noted in an earlier look at the company, it has substantially reduced its activities in Peru, where it has determined not to pursue further exploration projects in Blocks 123 and 129. And while it is expanding its representation in Malaysia, it has diluted its interest in Australia Pacific LNG to 37.5%, from 42.5%.

Conoco CEO Ryan Lance told analysts following his company's earnings release:

"The most important takeaway, I think, from today's call is that the business is running well and that our plans are on track, and I'm pleased with our performance in our first full quarter as an independent E&P company. We remain highly focused on executing our major projects and our drilling programs, and we're also building and testing our conventional and unconventional exploration portfolio."

The Foolish bottom line
Earlier this week I observed to Fools that, for my money, ConocoPhillips remains in such a state of relatively unpredictable flux that I'm not currently inclined to be a buyer of its shares. I would, however, urge my Foolish friends to continue to closely observe its progress, ideally by adding its name to My Watchlist.

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David Lee Smith has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool has options on Chesapeake Energy. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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