Big Oil Drags Down the Dow

Without much in the way of market-moving news, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) has had an up and down day and was trading 0.43% lower at 3:30 p.m. EDT. The fear over escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict has died down, earnings season is over, and economic data has been decent but not enough for either bears or bulls to take control of the market recently.

Investors should keep in mind that earnings will ultimately drive stock performance, and that profits are rising steadily and most companies are beating estimates. But not everyone is doing well; one major Dow segment worth worrying about is energy, which showed further signs of long-term headwinds today.

U.S. consumers are filling up less often at Chevron stations like this one.

Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) was down 1.1% and ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) fell another 1.6% in today's trading. The drops came after Chevron followed ExxonMobil in cutting its production outlook. Chevron said production by 2017 would be 3.1 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, down from a previous estimate of 3.3 million. That's still up from 2.6 million barrels of oil equivalent per day this year but shows further challenges for Big Oil in coming years. 

ExxonMobil recently said its production will be flat this year and that capital spending will drop from $42.5 billion in 2013 to $37 billion between 2015 and 2017. It's running into the same challenges as Chevron, facing higher costs of exploration and lower returns on multibillion-dollar drilling projects.

This isn't a new trend for Big Oil; you can see the challenge in where and how they're drilling for new oil and gas. Fracking wells that were once uneconomical is now a major source of U.S. energy production; wells drilled in more than a mile of water accounted for half of the new discoveries last year. These are expensive places to drill and a single mistake in where you invest billions of dollars can be costly, so they're focusing fewer dollars on high return, high probability projects.

That's good for returns in the near term and should keep profits high, but the energy industry is all about growing production long term and the level of investment should be concerning for investors. Developed countries are using less and less oil, and as alternative energy becomes more economical these companies could be in for a long, slow decline.

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