Xom Beaufort Sea Corporate Website

Image source: ExxonMobil corporate website.

You may be hard pressed to find a whole lot of headlines in 2015 that looked like good news to ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM). Continuing declines in oil prices and accusations that ExxonMobil was misleading its shareholders about the threat of climate change to its business have dominated the news so far this year.

Despite all the bad press, there are a few things that did go ExxonMobi's way this year. Let's look at a couple things that might give its shareholders some hope that there are better times ahead for the company. 

Earnings weren't as bad as some expected
You might say that all of the news around ExxonMobil's earnings in 2015 was bad because each quarterly result was much lower than the prior year's. However, almost everyone predicted that ExxonMobil was going to see lower comps compared with 2014 because oil and gas prices had declined so much. What was slightly reassuring about each of those earnings reports was that the company did exceed Wall Street's expectations. Of the integrated majors, only ExxonMobil and Chevron (NYSE:CVX) were able to achieve this goal.

CompanyYTD Earnings Per ShareYTD Analyst Estimate Earnings Per shareDifference
ExxonMobil $3.18 $2.72 17%
Chevron  $2.76 $2.70 2%
BP  ($1.04) ($0.50) (108%)
Royal Dutch Shell  ($0.28) $2.68 --
Total $2.90 $3.07 (6%)

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Things like beating arbitrary expectations set by analysts may not really matter in the long term, but it's hard to say that it didn't have some impact on share prices in 2015.

The other thing that was a slight positive for the company this year is that the company has so far been able to keep its cash flow from operations ahead of its capital spending plans. In this case, only ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A) (NYSE:RDS-B) have been able to cover capital spending plans with cash from operations. 

CompanyOperational Cash Flow As a % of Capital Spending (YTD 2015)
ExxonMobil 127%
Chevron  67%
BP  98%
Royal Dutch Shell  139%
Total 79%

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

With oil prices slipping even further in the fourth quarter, it's possible that both ExxonMobil and Shell will see cash flows dry up enough that they don't cover all of 2015's capital expenses. Either way, this year has been bad for ExxonMobil, but it isn't as bad as it could have been. That's a good thing, right?

High-profile discovery
Despite the dour climate for oil and gas as of late, it's not as though ExxonMobil can simply pack up shop and not spend any more money until prices recover. Most of its development projects have taken years to develop, and it takes even more exploratory drilling and appraisal work to get those projects lined up. So the company got a bit of good news when it announced the discovery of a large oil reservoir off the coast of Guyana. 

ExxonMobil itself has not disclosed the full potential size of the discovery, but an announcement from a Guyana government minister said the discovery could have as much as 700 million barrels of recoverable oil. If this were the case, that would be enough oil to almost replace all of ExxonMobil's oil production for the year in just one find. 

Further reports say ExxonMobil has already moved the discovery to its quiver of pre-front-end engineering design stage. For an offshore discovery, that's a pretty rapid pace. While that might suggest it's a very promising discovery, it's also possible that ExxonMobil is trying to get on this project quickly to reap the benefits of cheaper dayrates from service contractors as well as rig and floating production, storage, and offloading rental rates.

Having a large discovery like this in the middle of a down market won't garner a whole lot of attention from investors, because they've been so sour on the energy industry in general. If ExxonMobil has made a discovery this large and is moving quickly to get it into development, though, it suggests that it was a good one that would probably have attracted much more media buzz in any other year. 

What a Fool believes
There wasn't a whole lot of good news to cling to in 2015 for ExxonMobil, or anyone else in this space for that matter. The doom and gloom of low oil prices has dominated the narrative for the year, and chances are that will be the narrative for a while longer. Looking at ExxonMobil specifically, though, the fact that it could have been worse is a slight consolation prize. 

Eventually, though, the lack of investment and the natural decline of existing sources will catch up with the entire industry. When it does, we can expect some sort of recovery in oil prices, and the fact that ExxonMobil has been able to keep its financial house in order while making some progress on new sources will probably pay off down the road.

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

The Motley Fool owns shares of ExxonMobil. The Motley Fool recommends Chevron and Total (ADR). 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.