The work of a major oil company is never complete. Even as ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) is spending billions to grow its production by 3% to 5% between now and 2017, it already has its eyes on growth past that point. The company is planning to spend 15% of its annual capital budget this year, or nearly $2.5 billion on longer-term exploration and appraisal projects designed to deliver growth from 2017 and beyond. Let's drill down into three of the more interesting opportunities coming down the pipe.
While I've questioned whether we should allow American production assets to be sold to national oil companies, it does work both ways. ConocoPhillips has two joint study agreements on the Chinese mainland with Sinopec and PetroChina, which covers 1.5 million net acres of the country's shale plays. This could prove to be an important future opportunity for the company as China, which has the third largest recoverable natural gas reserves in the world, is working to lock up its own future energy sources.
ConocoPhillips isn't the only U.S. company operating onshore in China. Top oilfield service companies Halliburton (NYSE:HAL) and Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB) are also looking for ways to help China tap its vast resources. Schlumberger sees China as one of its key growth geographies, with its onshore joint ventures being among its most promising opportunities. Halliburton is also on the mainland, with software sales being an important area for the company as it helps operators map out the best way to tap the resources that are trapped inside the shale. As these companies work with China to unlock its vast resource potential, it could yield big future profits, especially for Conoco.
Off the coast of Africa, Conoco believes it has identified a play that is a probable analog to Brazil's pre-salt play. The company has 2.5 million net acres and acquired 3-D seismic confirms many promising prospects in the play:
The plan is to drill four wells beginning in 2014, so production is still a long way off. However, if this play does turn out to be as good as the one in Brazil, it'll be a huge boost for Conoco in the years ahead.
Gulf of Mexico
While the Gulf of Mexico is a fairly well-known and prolific play, it's still an area of exploration for ConocoPhillips. The company has nearly doubled its acreage position here to 2 million net acres in the deepwater, making it the second largest leaseholder. The focus here is in emerging plays, with the Paleocene and Miocene being the areas of focus for the company.
Over the next year, the company plans to drill five wells, with an additional three possible. The one to watch is its Coronado prospect with Chevron (NYSE:CVX). So far the results here have been encouraging, and the partners expect to conduct further a appraisal this year. Over the longer term, the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico could be an important area of growth for the company, given its proximity to the Gulf Coast refining market.
My Foolish take
While ConocoPhillips has a solid plan to grow its production by 3% to 5% through 2017, true long-term investors need to keep an eye on what's coming next. These appraisal and exploration projects represent some of the company's exciting potential as it explores for the next phase of growth. These projects also represent just a small slice of the more than $2 billion the company will be spending on both conventional and unconventional opportunities over the next year. Not all of them will pay off, but the potential is there that these three plays are the ones we will be taking about for years to come.