U.S. oil giant ConocoPhillips (COP 3.04%) has jettisoned assets left and right during the past few years, paring its portfolio down to a stronger core. The proceeds from those sales significantly bolstered the company's balance sheet, and enabled it to jump-start its share repurchase program as well. Those catalysts helped fuel a nearly 30% gain in the stock since it launched its transformational initiative back in November 2016.

While most investors have focused on the assets exiting the company's portfolio, it's worth noting that ConocoPhillips also quietly bought several oil and gas properties this year -- purchases that strengthened its positions in two core areas and added to its upside potential. These less-noticed moves could turn out to be important value creators in the coming years.

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Details on the latest deal

Earlier this week, ConocoPhillips provided an update on its asset sale program. It noted that it closed or signed agreements to sell $250 million of non-core assets in the first quarter, including several small land packages in the red-hot Permian Basin, as well as some undeveloped land in South Texas. When last transaction closes this quarter, that will be a wrap for the company's ambitious portfolio transformation, under which it unloaded more than $16 billion worth of assets in fiscal 2017 alone -- more than twice the value it initially planned to sell.

However, embedded in the most recent update was news that ConocoPhillips also purchased land in two emerging resource plays. First, it scooped up 245,000 acres in the Austin Chalk play of central Louisiana at a very low cost. That gives it a prime position in what it believes could be a high-upside opportunity. The oil giant plans to drill several exploration wells on that land this year.

In addition, it picked up another 35,000 acres in the Montney shale play of Canada for $120 million. The acreage is adjacent to ConocoPhillips' prior stake in the liquids-rich shale play, and boosts its total position there to 140,000 acres. While it's not as well known as some shale regions in the U.S., the area has become a key growth driver for Encana (OVV 4.44%) -- that company's liquids output from Montney doubled over the past year. Encana forecasts its fast-paced growth there continuing this year, with high-margin liquids output doubling again by the fourth quarter.

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Taking control of the future

These two recent acquisitions followed a similar one by the company earlier in 2018. Along with reporting fourth-quarter results in early February, ConocoPhillips noted that it had purchased a package of assets from Anadarko Petroleum (APC) in Alaska for $400 million. The properties included Anadarko's 22% interest in the Western North Slope of Alaska, as well as its stake in the Alpine pipeline. The transaction enabled ConocoPhillips to gain full control over this core asset for a low price while providing Anadarko with some additional cash to pay off debt and buy back shares.

The deal also gave ConocoPhillips total control over 1.2 million acres of development and exploration land, including the Willow discovery. That find could turn out to be a needle-mover for the company, which believes Willow could hold as much as 300 million barrels of recoverable oil, making it a potential multibillion-dollar investment that could eventually produce up to 100,000 barrels of oil per day. The downside is that the company won't see a drop of that oil until 2023 at the earliest, given the time required to obtain permits and build out the infrastructure necessary to access that resource. However, that timing meshes well with when some forecasters predict a potential gap in the world's oil supply.

Going off the beaten path to create value

While most of its rivals are focused on scooping up as much high-priced acreage in the Permian Basin as they can, ConocoPhillips is content to cash in on some of its land holdings so it can quietly buy properties in overlooked areas where it sees some high-upside potential. These deals have not only firmed up its core positions, but have given the company some compelling growth drivers. It's a bit of a contrarian approach that could pay big dividends in the coming years.