ConocoPhillips vs. Occidental Petroleum: Which is Better For You?

Energy giants ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP  ) and Occidental Petroleum (NYSE: OXY  ) are very similar businesses. They're both exploration and production companies that operate primarily upstream business models. As a result, they both stand to be big winners from lofty oil prices, which currently sit at nearly $100 per barrel in the United States. Plus, increasing production in 2014 will serve as an additional tailwind.

And yet, no two companies are created equal. ConocoPhillips and Occidental Petroleum have some subtle differences in operational strategy. Specifically, while Occidental plans a big increase in capital investment this year, ConocoPhillips is getting modest with its spending. Here are some of the major differences between the two seemingly identical businesses that investors should carefully consider before jumping into either stock.

Solid momentum in 2014
ConocoPhillips and Occidental Petroleum aren't nearly as integrated as the global super-majors, meaning their profits are heavily dependent on oil prices and production. Fortunately, each company is benefiting on both accounts as we proceed into 2014. For example, ConocoPhillips advises investors that for every $1 change in crude oil prices per barrel in the United States, their profits will fluctuate by between $75 million-$85 million. With oil prices up to begin 2014, this will serve them well.

And, from a production standpoint, both companies are looking good. ConocoPhillips plans to grow production by 3%-5% per year in 2014 and over the long term. Similarly, Occidental seeks to increase production by 3% this year.

At the same time, they aren't identical by any means. A major difference between the two companies is how they plan to allocate investment this year. ConocoPhillips is getting relatively modest with its capital spending plans in the upcoming year. It expects to utilize $16.7 billion in capital expenditures in 2014, which represents only a fractional increase from last year's expenditure levels.

By contrast, Occidental Petroleum has no such plans for budgetary restriction. Occidental's 2014 capital program is expected to be approximately $10.2 billion, which represents a 16% increase from last year. Its additional spending will be focused primarily on domestic oil production. Occidental expects gas production to be relatively flat this year, but it's quickly ramping up oil production in the United States. Occidental will spend heavily to accelerate growth in California and its Permian Basin operations this year.

To be sure, ConocoPhillips is allocating investment to its most promising domestic oil fields as well, just not growing them at nearly the extent of Occidental. ConocoPhillips plans to increase investment in the Eagle Ford, Bakken, and Permian Basin, but it's also going to taper off spending in other global projects such as its Australian Pacific liquefied natural gas development. Essentially, ConocoPhillips will rely on its existing project portfolio more than Occidental Petroleum this year.

Another important distinction is that ConocoPhillips has been in divestment mode recently. Last year, ConocoPhillips underwent a major divestiture period, designed to slim down the company and tighten its focus on only the best opportunities. ConocoPhillips disposed of more than $12 billion worth of what it deemed nonstrategic assets. It used a portion of the proceeds to invest in production opportunities, which explains why it's not growing spending as much as Occidental Petroleum this year.

The Foolish bottom line
ConocoPhillips and Occidental Petroleum are both primarily upstream exploration and production companies. While they share similar business models and geographic operations in the United States, they are taking different approaches to investment this year. Occidental Petroleum is proving to be much more aggressive than ConocoPhillips. Occidental is plowing full steam ahead with its capital expenditure program, while ConocoPhillips is getting relatively modest.

ConocoPhillips is adopting a more conservative model by tightening capital spending and selling off assets to raise cash. ConocoPhillips wants to hold a higher cash balance than Occidental. For more conservative investors, the immediate payoff is that ConocoPhillips pays a higher dividend than Occidental, although it's entirely possible Occidental will outperform in terms of future growth in the years ahead.

America is clearly the focus for these 3 growing companies as well

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