ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP), the largest independent oil and gas company by production and proven reserves, had a pretty decent year. While production for the first nine of months of 2013 was flat compared with the same period last year, the company's nine-month adjusted earnings increased 6% year over year to $5.3 billion, or $4.30 per share, while its stock price gained almost 20% this year.
With the company having recently announced its capital spending plans for next year, let's take a closer look at where ConocoPhillips sees opportunities to drive its future growth.
North American development drilling
Next year, Conoco plans to spend $16.7 billion, up 6% from this year's spending levels, with much of it earmarked for development drilling in key U.S. shale plays. Overall, the company plans to allocate the largest portion of its capital budget -- roughly 39% -- toward development drilling, 35% on major projects around the world, 13% on global exploration and appraisal, and the remaining 13% on base maintenance.
Of the company's $6.5 billion funds set aside for high-margin development drilling, the vast majority -- roughly 90% -- will be spent in North America. The company has earmarked $4.3 billion for its Lower 48 drilling program, which drove much of the company's production and earnings growth this year. Going forward, Conoco will continue to target its roughly 2 million acres across the Eagle Ford, Permian Basin, and Bakken.
Through 2017, Conoco expects to spend roughly $3 billion in the Permian, $4 billion in the Bakken, and $8 billion in the Eagle Ford, with the latter two expected to deliver the highest annual production growth rates of 18% and 16%, respectively. Crucially, the company's production from these plays will be increasingly oil-rich, which, combined with continuing efficiency gains from multi-well pad drilling, should boost returns.
The company's position in Canada's oil sands, where it commands nearly 1.1 million net acres representing an estimated 16 billion net barrels of resources, is also noteworthy. There, Conoco operates the Surmont steam-assisted gravity drainage facility facility as part of a 50/50 joint venture agreement with Total (NYSE:TOT) and also maintains a 50% interest in the Foster Creek, Christina Lake, and Narrows Lake projects, which are operated by Cenovus Energy (TSX: CVE).
As these projects are completed and expanded in various phases over the next few years, they should provide a big boost to the company's production. Through 2017, ConocoPhillips expects to increase its oil sands production at an annual rate of 16%. In addition, these projects are long-lived assets, with estimated project lives as high as 40 years, meaning they should generate strong cash flows for decades to come.
Other international ventures
Outside North America, the company also has major investments in projects in Europe, including Ekofisk South in Norway and Jasmine in the U.K., which recently came on stream, and Eldfisk II in Norway, which is slated to come online in 2015. Combined, these three projects should boost production by roughly 100,000 barrels per day.
Conoco also sees opportunities in its Australia Pacific LNG project in Queensland, which is operated alongside partner Origin Energy (ASX: ORG) and is expected to begin producing in mid-2015, as well as gas drilling opportunities in Indonesia, for which it is partnering with Chevron (NYSE:CVX) in the South Natuna Sea and with Talisman Energy (NYSE:TLM) in South Sumatra.
And last but not least is ConocoPhillips' strong upside potential from exploration drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, where the company recently announced a major oil discovery at its Gila prospect -- an oil and gas prospect majority-owned and operated by BP (NYSE:BP), in which Conoco has a 20% working interest. The find is ConocoPhillips' fourth deepwater Gulf of Mexico discovery and highlights the company's success with other discoveries in the region, including Tiber, Shenandoah, and Coronado.
The bottom line
All told, ConocoPhillips has a large and diversified mix of domestic and international projects in both unconventional and conventional reservoirs that should help it meet its target of 3%-5% annual production growth through 2017. Investors should keep a close eye on the company's Lower 48 drilling program, which should represent more than 60% of its production growth over the next few years, as well as its exploration programs in the Gulf of Mexico and offshore West Africa, which offer strong upside potential.
Fool contributor Arjun Sreekumar has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Chevron and Total. 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.