Oil major ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) has in the recent past been in the thick of bearish outlooks. Driven by unfavorable natural gas pricing, negative investor sentiment has suppressed the oil bigwig's share price and hobbled growth. Interestingly, ExxonMobil is not alone in this. Chevron (NYSE:CVX) and Chesapeake (NYSE:CHK), among other competitors, are also crushing under the weight of low natural gas prices. The effect of ExxonMobil's exposure to natural gas was reflected in its lackluster performance over the past year. Despite this, ExxonMobil is not backing down. Why is this so?

Natural gas benefits outstrip near-term balance sheet woes
Low natural gas pricing negatively affected ExxonMobil's performance during the second quarter. Net income fell 57% year on year to come in at $1.55 a share, the lowest quarterly EPS number since September 2010. Fellow Fool Bob Ciura points out that Chevron also posted a slip, albeit smaller, during the same period. Its quarterly net income dipped 26%. Chevron has spread its natural gas efforts beyond the U.S. to global markets like Australia and Africa. This has allowed it to avoid some of the headwinds affecting ExxonMobil in the U.S. Indeed, ever since ExxonMobil bought the then largest holder of natural gas reserves, XTO Energy, in 2009 for $41 billion, Chevron's shares have clocked gains twice as big as ExxonMobil's. Chesapeake is also sweltering under the heat as signaled by its recent move to pass natural gas costs to land owners in Pennsylvania through increased deductions on royalty checks. The unpopular move, although supported by law, has seen deductions increase from the typical 5% to 10% range to an excess of 60%.

The snippet above reveals the impact that low U.S. natural gas prices had on the performance of oil majors over the past year. While Chesapeake and Chevron have taken corrective measures, ExxonMobil continues to wade in the waters. This is primarily because of the long-term benefits of natural gas.

ExxonMobil predicts that natural gas demand will track upward over the next three decades to 65%, exceeding coal as a source of energy. This is welcome news not only for the energy sector, but for other industrial players as well. Ethane and other liquids from natural gas are essential raw materials for plastic and other crucial products. At the Shale Insight 2013 conference in late September, ExxonMobil Chemical Company Chairman Steve Pryor pointed out that other industrial sectors accounted for close to 30% of U.S. natural gas demand. This presents a huge opportunity for ExxonMobil as it will be able to grow its top line while at the same time increasing its number of revenue streams.

Other than presenting alternate revenue streams, natural gas positions ExxonMobil at the heart of a U.S.-led global energy revolution. U.S. natural gas prospects remain a huge threat to OPEC. While no candid concerns have been raised by OPEC, the commencement of U.S. natural gas exportation will certainly have an impact on OPEC's grip on the global oil market. Prices will bow to the forces of supply and demand as opposed to OPEC's preset production quotas. This will allow U.S. natural gas players, ExxonMobil being one of them, to penetrate deeper into previously inaccessible markets. The effect that this will have on ExxonMobil's growth will be tremendous.

Underlying strategy protects shareholders
While the prospects offered by continued natural gas drilling are engaging, investors remain cautious about ExxonMobil's thinning margins. Shouldn't it follow in the steps of its peers and reduce exposure in favor of safeguarding margins?

ExxonMobil has an underlying strategy that protects shareholders against thinning margins and ensures consistent dividends.

The chart below offers a deeper insight:

Shares Outstanding

Source: Morningstar

Over the past nine years, ExxonMobil's share repurchase programs have reduced shares outstanding by 30.5%. This not only has an effect of increasing EPS, but it also allows ExxonMobil to continue paying reasonable dividends even in the face of thinning margins. This partly explains why the oil behemoth has been able to increase dividends for the past 31 consecutive years.

Fool's takeaway
ExxonMobil's heavy exposure in the natural gas sector doesn't come short of risks. However, the fact that it has underlying measures to preserve shareholder value and keep income investors happy says volumes about its commitment to shareholders. Going forward, natural gas prices will adjust to global demand. ExxonMobil investors will not only enjoy the typical solid dividend payouts, but also great growth. ExxonMobil is a strong long-term buy.

Lennox Yieke has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Chevron. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not 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.