Why ConocoPhillips is a Wise Choice for Energy Investors

Energy giant ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) recently gave its Fall 2013 investor update, and it's clear the company has ambitious plans for itself. While acknowledging that it's not the same company it was just a few years ago -- primarily the result of spinning off its massive refining business -- it nevertheless promises a prosperous future for its shareholders.

Among its long-term strategic priorities, ConocoPhillips management promises to deliver between 3% and 5% production and margin growth, compounded annually. While steady growth during a shaky recovery from the worst recession in decades is far from guaranteed, the company has set in motion a series of initiatives that lead me to believe its goals are attainable.

Wisely focusing on lower-risk geographies
Conoco's belief that it can grow margins and production is thanks to the company's focus on diversified, high-margin plays in what it termed 'lower-risk' geographies. Conoco recently advised investors it would divest $9 billion worth of assets in Kazakhstan, Algeria, and Nigeria. Moreover, of the company's four major projects expected to ramp up through 2017, none are located in the Middle East or Africa. Instead, Conoco sets its sights on Australia, Malaysia, Europe, and the Canadian oil sands. Combined, these projects should produce more than 300 million barrels of oil equivalents over the next several years. 

This stands in stark contrast to the policies of many international majors, which proceed full-speed ahead into areas with pronounced risk. Many energy companies keep plowing resources into the Middle East and Africa, despite constant security challenges. Italy's Eni (NYSE: E  ) might be regretting the commitment it made earlier this year to spending $8 billion in Libya over the next decade. That's because supply disruptions have severely affected production in the region. Eni Chief Executive Officer Paolo Scaroni recently stated that Eni has been producing at just 60% capacity in Libya since the beginning of the year.

Scaroni further admitted that while he still believes in Libya's long-term promise, the situation is out of control and getting worse. That would surely spell bad news for Eni, which has more operations in Libya than any other driller in the world.

Near-term growth from promising domestic projects
In the near future, Conoco should see strong growth from a number of very promising plays in the United States, where production of oil and gas is growing strongly. Two of Conoco's best projects are in the Bakken and Eagle Ford plays. Conoco will invest $4 billion and $8 billion into its Bakken and Eagle Ford operations over the next five years, respectively, and will add 175 million barrels of oil equivalent by 2017.

Conoco isn't the only major benefiting hugely from extremely productive shale plays in the United States. Hess Corporation (NYSE: HES  ) is the largest gas producer and the third-largest oil producer in North Dakota.

Hess, like Conoco, made the decision earlier this year to shed assets in unstable regions. Unfortunately though, Hess still has considerable operations in Libya and is feeling the impacts. Due to civil unrest, Hess saw Libyan production fall by 23,000 barrels of oil equivalents per day during the third quarter, and expects full-year production in the region to come in at the low end of its previous guidance.

At the same time, Hess grew production from its own Bakken operations by 14%, to 71,000 barrels of oil equivalents per day, and simultaneously reduced well drilling and completion costs there by 18% year over year. Going forward, Hess plans to produce about 70,000 barrels of oil equivalents per day for the remainder of the year.

The bottom line
ConocoPhillips expects many years ahead of increasing production, which will help fuel its cash returns to shareholders. Conoco considers providing investors with a high dividend yield to be a main priority. Not surprisingly, then, is that Conoco carries one of the highest dividend yields of the U.S.-based energy majors, at nearly 4%.

Conoco feels its strategic asset divestments and a renewed focus on only the highest-return projects are reasons to believe it can hit its production goals. Moreover, Conoco is wisely avoiding geographical areas with heightened levels of risk, which may end up being a shrewd decision. While success on these initiatives is far from guaranteed, I'm inclined to believe Conoco management.

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