Xom Drillship

Image source: ExxonMobil Investor presentation.

If earnings from the energy sector are any indication thus far, investors should keep their expectations for ExxonMobil's (NYSE:XOM) pretty low. There are a lot of words to describe ExxonMobil, but "nimble" isn't one of them, and oil and gas prices haven't exactly been robust. So here are a few things to watch for when ExxonMobil reports earnings.

Another quarter of tough comps
At this time last year, oil prices were still rather high compared with what they are today. Prices for crude oil declined a little in the third quarter of 2014, but they didn't really start their epic freefall until November, when OPEC announced that it was going to hold production steady to maintain its market share. 

According to consensus estimates compiled by S&P Capital IQ, ExxonMobil is expected to post normalized earnings per share of $0.90 on $63.6 billion in revenue. That would put ExxonMobil's per-share profits at a little less than half of what they were this time last year.

One aspect to look forward to: refining
One of the lone bright spots for ExxonMobil and many of its peers during this oil-price collapse is that it has given downstream refining and retail earnings a considerable boost. Last quarter, the company's refining segment almost doubled its earnings compared with the year prior, which helped to keep ExxonMobil in the black despite some poor results from its U.S. oil and gas production.

Based on some preliminary results this quarter, ExxonMobil could be in for another strong refining quarter. BP's (NYSE:BP) earnings were better than expected thanks to its refining results, and Valero's (NYSE:VLO) earnings were also impressive as cheap American crude boosted refinery margins considerably. These two are important indicators for ExxonMobil because a large portion of BP's refining segment is in Europe, while a vast majority of Valero's refining capacity is located in the Gulf of Mexico. Looking at ExxonMobil's global operations, much of its refning capacity is in these two regions. So we can assume that these two earnings results cold be decent bellwethers for ExxonMobil's refining results.  

What to watch for
The big things that really matter for ExxonMobil will be the company's cash-generation situation. ExxonMobil has prided itself as one of the very few companies with the ability to invest through the cycles of the oil and gas market. If we see a steep drop-off in cash generated from operations, though, ExxonMobil may end up trimming its capital budget for 2016 even more than it already has. 

Another aspect worth checking up on is whether the company announces final investment decisions on any of its major projects in the works. To invest through the cycle as it says it does, it will need to start fleshing out some plans for its post-2017 development plans. There are plenty of potential investments to choose from, but many of them may not meet ExxonMobil's current financial requirements to make a project economical today.

Xom Far Outlook

Image source: ExxonMobil Investor presentation.

What a Fool believes
Like so many other companies in the oil and gas space, ExxonMobil's upcoming earnings won't turn any heads compared with the numbers it posted over the past couple of years. However, the company does have the advantage of being one of the best financed businesses in the world and has more than enough room on the balance sheet to take any pounding the market may throw its way. If the company can generate some semblance of steady cash flow from stronger refining operations and find some investment opportunities in today's low oil-price environment, then ExxonMobil will be set up as well as any company can in this rough energy market.

ExxonMobil reports earnings on Oct. 30 before the market opens and will host a conference call to discuss the results at 9:30 a.m. ET. 

Tyler Crowe owns shares of ExxonMobil.  You can follow him at Fool.com or on Twitter @TylerCroweFool.

The Motley Fool owns shares of ExxonMobil. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.