ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) excelled by all accounts last year. Its efforts to reduce costs and reshape its portfolio in prior years improved its profitability to such an extent that the company made more money in last year's third quarter than it did in the same period of 2014 even though oil prices were 25% lower and its oil and gas production was 20% below that year's level. That ability to deliver such strong earnings was one of many things its investors had to cheer about last year.

The hope is that the company can maintain its momentum and investor enthusiasm when it reports fourth-quarter results later this week. Here are a few things investors should keep an eye on in that report.

The sun setting behind an oil pump.

Image source: Getty Images.

Check if production was on target

One of the reasons ConocoPhillips delivered such strong results last year was that its production had been running slightly ahead of forecast. Because of that and a minor spending increase, the company boosted its full-year production forecast from an initial range of 1.195 million to 1.235 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (BOE/D) up to the current projection of 1.225 million to 1.255 million BOE/D. To achieve that forecast, the company needs to produce between 1.275 million and 1.315 million BOE/D during the fourth quarter, an increase from the 1.224 million BOE/D it produced in the third quarter.

Given how important production is to an oil company, investors should see if ConocoPhillips' output was within that target range. If that's not the case, they should see what caused the miss. Last quarter, for example, an unplanned outage at a third-party gas plant in the U.S. impacted production from the East Irish Sea, causing the company's output to come in just below its guidance range. One thing to pay the closest attention to during the fourth quarter is its big three shale plays in the U.S. (Eagle Ford, Bakken, and Permian Basin), where the company expects strong growth to help drive its overall production higher in the quarter.

See if earnings beat expectations once again

The third quarter was ConocoPhillips' most profitable in years thanks to higher oil prices. Overall, the oil giant earned an adjusted $1.36 per share, which came in an impressive $0.18 per share ahead of expectations, marking the third straight quarter that ConocoPhillips exceeded analysts' expectations.

However, with oil prices plunging 40% during the fourth quarter, analysts aren't expecting another profit gusher from ConocoPhillips. Instead, the consensus is that the company will earn about $0.98 per share. Given the company's recent outperformance, investors should see if it was able to exceed expectations once again despite the deep dive in oil prices. One factor that could fuel stronger profits is if production came in at the high end of the company's guidance range, which is another reason why investors should keep an eye on that number.

Look for any changes to its 2019 plan

ConocoPhillips was one of the first oil companies to unveil its spending plans for 2019. The company set a cautious tone by keeping its capital budget flat with 2018's level, noting that it could fund that spending level on the cash flows produced at $40 oil. Meanwhile, at $50 oil, the company could generate enough money to pay its dividend as well as continue repurchasing shares, which it could also fund with cash on hand.

Crude prices continued falling in the weeks that followed the budget announcement in early December, though they've bounced back a bit in 2019. Given that volatility, investors should see if the company makes any changes to its plan. One area to watch is its participation level in nonoperated wells, considering the possibility that some of its partners might not move ahead with as many wells as the company initially anticipated given the steep decline in oil prices over the last few months.

Anticipating a solid finish despite the volatility

While ConocoPhillips likely won't report another gusher of profits during the fourth quarter given the late-year plunge in crude prices, the oil giant should still finish the year on a solid note. As long as it didn't run into any production issues and kept a lid on costs, then it should post another solid profit. That would go a long way in helping the company maintain its momentum in 2019.

Matthew DiLallo owns shares of ConocoPhillips. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.