ConocoPhillips vs. Occidental Petroleum: Which Should You Pick for Income and Growth?

ConocoPhillips and Occidental Petroleum are two oil behemoths with two different growth strategies, but which is the better play for investors looking for both income and growth?

Rupert Hargreaves
Rupert Hargreaves
Apr 29, 2014 at 1:03PM
Energy, Materials, and Utilities

ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) and Occidental Petroleum (NYSE:OXY) are the two largest independent oil and gas companies in the S&P 500, but they are two very different companies.

Indeed, while ConocoPhillips is targeting growth through exploration and production, Occidental is going through a transition period, selling and spinning off low-margin assets in order to boost profits.

But which company is the better play for investors seeking both income and growth?

Plans for growth
ConocoPhillips instantly stands out has having the more aggressive plans for growth. The company's management recently unveiled the company's development for the next few years, targeting a consistent 3% to 5% compound annual growth in output through 2016 driven by higher-margin production.

Essentially, Conoco is looking to develop projects with lower lifting costs than current developments -- simply put, higher margin projects. The company has already made a great start to this by increasing its cash margin by 11% during the 2012-2013 period.

In addition, Conoco is targeting a annual organic reserve replacement target of more than 100%.

To achieve this growth, Conoco has laid out a strict spending plan, planning expenditure of no more than $16 billion over the period in order to achieve its goals.

Key to growth
Key to Conoco's growth is the company's presence within the Eagle Ford, where the company is the lowest cost and highest return operator within the region.

Conoco plans to increase its resources by nearly 40% within the Eagle Ford region as part of its growth strategy, targeting output of 250,000 barrels of oil per day by 2017. And with leading production margins, it's likely Conoco's profits will surge as a result of this output expansion.

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Conoco is not only targeting growth within the Eagle Ford: The company plans to develop several Gulf of Mexico properties as well as offshore prospects in Australia, Angola, and Senegal. Conventional and unconventional plays are also being developed within Norway, Indonesia, Poland, and Colombia. 

The company has projects already underway in the U.S., the Canadian oil sands, Malaysia, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the Norwegian North Sea.

On a diet for growth
While ConocoPhillips is looking to drive growth through exploration and production, Occidental is slimming itself down to improve profits.

Occidental is planning to go on a diet through asset sales and a spinoff, both of which should result in good returns for investors. Firstly, Occidental is looking to sell about 40% of its assets in the Middle East and North Africa, and secondly, the company is looking to spin off its Californian oil and gas production assets, which have huge growth potential.

Occidental expects to complete the spinoff by the end of 2014, or early 2015 at the latest.

At present, analysts believe the new spun-off company could be worth in the region of $19 billion to $22 billion. The unit generated a pre-tax profit of $1.5 billion during 2013, implying a valuation of around 20 times earnings, assuming a 30% tax rate.

What's more, the new company will hold about 2.3 million net acres of land and be California's largest oil and gas producer.

However, some shareholders have stated their opposition, instead wanting Occidental to establish a more robust growth program for the Californian assets before they're separated.

Indeed, since 2010, Occidental has not been able to increase Californian production beyond 1% in any three-month period. Nevertheless, it's not as if the company does not have the potential to grow.

For example, back during 2011, some Wall Street analysts put forward the idea that Occidental's Californian acreage could hold as much as 10 billion barrels of oil. Unfortunately, the problem is getting this oil out of the ground.

California's Monterey shale is a vast rock formation that spans much of the state and is different from other shale plays around the country. In particular, Monterey rocks are more varied than those found in the Marcellus and Bakken formations. This means a producer might target a brittle layer of rock perfect for hydraulic fracturing, only to hit a more resilient, fracking-resistant rock farther along.

Income question
So, Conoco's plans for growth look attractive, but Occidental's spinoff plans could yield even better returns for investors. After taking these two points into account, it's clear these two companies are equally matched on the growth front, but what about income?

Well, at present Conoco offers a 3.7% dividend yield, around 20% higher than Occidental's offering of 3%; what's more, Conoco trades at a marginally lower valuation than Occidental. Specifically, Conoco trades at a forward P/E of 12.5, while Occidental trades at a forward P/E of 13.5.

So, taking into account both Conoco's and Occidental's growth plans, their current valuations, and dividend yields, it would appear that Conoco looks to be the all-round better play for both income and growth.