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ConocoPhillips Focused on Returns, to Spend $5.5B on Capex Annually Through 2020

ConocoPhillips expects to grow oil and natural gas production by 5% and spend $5.5 billion a year on capital expenditures (capex) through 2020, but executives said the company could maintain flat production, including in the U.S. onshore, to leave room for dividends in case oil prices decline.

During its annual investor meeting, executives with Houston-based ConocoPhillips, the world's largest independent explorer and producer, stressed that the three-year operating plan would maintain financial discipline while providing returns to shareholders.

"We know we have a formula for how we're going to deliver significant value over the next three years, and we're going to do that at a flat $50 price," said CEO Ryan Lance, later adding that "the goal is to grow returns...We're excited about the plan. We know that we're racing against stiff competition in this business. But I believe, once again, we're going to set the pace for the sector."

The three-year plan's goals include 2-3% annual growth in cash return on capital employed, which if achieved would grow cash returns by more than 20% by 2020. The independent also plans to reduce its gross debt to $15 billion by 2019. Production could be sustained for $3.5 billion per year, which in turn would reduce the sustaining WTI price to less than $40/bbl.

Executive Vice President Al Hirshberg, who helms production, drilling and projects, said unconventional production could remain flat by deploying only five rigs in three of the five U.S. onshore plays in which it operates: the Eagle Ford Shale, the Bakken Shale and the Permian’s Delaware sub-basin. Aside from those plays -- dubbed the "Big 3" -- ConocoPhillips is also active in the Montney Shale and the Niobrara formation.

Each of the unconventional assets “is at a different stage of maturity and asset life cycle," Hirshberg said. "The Niobrara and the Montney are still relatively immature and in the appraisal phase, but they do show great promise. We're planning more active appraisal programs in both of those in 2018.

"Our Delaware position is emerging from the appraisal phase and moving into the development phase. Our Bakken position is the most mature of our North American unconventional plays, although it's continued to improve significantly in performance over the past year. Our Eagle Ford position is in an optimal place on the maturity life cycle curve, and it's still in its prime. It's the poster child for how we approach an unconventional play to maximize the value of the asset."

According to Hirshberg, for ConocoPhillips to maintain a flat production scenario over the next three years, the company would need to divide the $3.5 billion in sustaining capital annually across its unconventional, conventional and liquefied natural gas (LNG) and oilsands assets.

"In total we need to spend an average of about $1.3 billion annually to keep our unconventional portion flat for the next three years," Hirshberg said. "About $100 million of that will go to maintenance activities on our current production base, and an average of $1.2 billion will be invested to offset declines.

"That investment will add production of 180,000 b/d in 2020, offsetting decline and sustaining our unconventional production level. By the way, this average of $1.2 billion a year includes about $300 million annually for new infrastructure. We have accounted for planned direct and indirect facilities and gathering investments over this period."

Hirshberg said ConocoPhillips plans to devote $1.9 billion annually to its conventional assets, adding production of 175,000 b/d in 2020 and offsetting declines. An additional $300 million would be needed annually to maintain about 300,000 b/d of production in LNG and the oilsands.

Last month, ConocoPhillips reported increased earnings for 3Q2017 but production declined, due in large part to the effects of Hurricane Harvey. The company also announced a 10% cut to its capex budget for 2017.

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