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Global Natural Gas, Oil Competition? Bring it On, Says ExxonMobil Chief

North America one day soon may be able to supply internal natural gas and oil demand, but that's no reason to ignore the value of international trade, ExxonMobil Corp. CEO Rex Tillerson said Wednesday.

Tillerson and crew spent the morning at the New York Stock Exchange to outline for investors capital spending plans and the outlook in the medium term. ExxonMobil, the largest North American natural gas producer, with more than 10 million acres to explore and develop, including vast deepwater Gulf of Mexico (GOM) and Arctic resources, won't pull back on competing in the global market.

Gaining approval by U.S. officials to allow natural gas and crude oil to be exported is more appealing than ever, he said.

"I think net-net, it's a positive for everyone first," said Tillerson. "But it's positive for us. Anytime you eliminate barriers to our ability to move our feedstocks, our products or our molecules around to achieve the highest value, that's a good thing for us. It's a good thing for U.S. economic and trade policies as well...

“This is a great opportunity to allow the U.S. to get the highest value for its own natural resources and to allow manufacturers to utilize these molecules, whether you're a refiner or petrochemical plant or an industrial process that uses natural gas or whatever, to have access to the best slate of feedstocks they can put their hands on," said the CEO.

For example, if a U.S. refiner "would really rather run on imported, foreign crude, because that gives them a higher margin for their configuration, and that surplus is a bunch of Eagle Ford or Bakken or Permian or wherever barrels, that someone offshore wouldn't love to have…That's a good thing. That's a great thing."

ExxonMobil is "not agnostic" to opening the trade flow.

"We're proponents of removing those trade barriers," said Tillerson. "And we'll deal. We are happy to deal and compete in every country and every resource and every facility we have. We are more than happy and welcome to take on the competitive challenges that come, and the fact that the global market is open to everybody. We love that. We thrive on that. We are not agnostic, we are pro free trade."

Turmoil in foreign lands, such as the Russian incursion into Ukraine, haven't deterred ExxonMobil from its joint venture with OAO Rosneft, he said. Barring any government sanctions, he doesn't expect the exploration and development plans to change in anyway.

It's easy for ExxonMobil to pitch the free-trade argument. It's global oil and gas empire is second to none. It is participating in four proposed liquefied natural gas export ventures in North America -- one in Alaska, two on the Gulf Coast and one for the west coast of British Columbia.

That empire also protects ExxonMobil from the highs and lows of oil and gas prices, Tillerson told the audience. Natural gas prices may be higher in the United States today, but the operator has to make sure the margins are there to restart the onshore engine. Today, the higher margins are coming from overseas mega-deals, along with production in liquids-rich North American ventures, including U.S. deepwater.

"We have a balanced and diversified portfolio that gives us a fundamental competitive advantage," he said. "Resource and geographic diversity across the portfolio enables us to mitigate risks in a dynamic market environment and maximize profitability through changing business cycles."

Midstream investments in North America are expanding ExxonMobil's logistics capabilities to transport crude oil and finished products. Other advantaged projects are being designed to increase production of "high-value products."

This year, production is slated to ramp up at a record 10 major projects adding about 300,000 boe/d net of capacity, Tillerson noted. A heavy oil facility in Canada is the only North American project that would begin producing this year. The deepwater GOM also is starting up development later in 2014, including the prospective Julia project in the GOM (see Daily GPI, May 9, 2013). However, production volumes should be flat this year.

"These projects exemplify our focus on maintaining a diversified portfolio and highlight our ability to grow profitable volumes," Tillerson said. "We are adding new volumes that improve our profitability mix with higher liquids and liquids linked natural gas volumes."In addition, the Irving, TX-based operator is improving unit profitability by exacting better fiscal terms and reducing "low-margin barrel production."

Capital spending hit its zenith in 2013 at a peak of $42.5 billion. With 10 major projects out of the way, expenditures will drop about 8% this year and average below $37 billion a year from 2015-2017, excluding any acquisitions.

More than 120 projects are being pursued that would add about 24 billion boe of oil and natural gas, said the CEO.

Liquids output this year is forecast to be 2% higher year/year and 4% a year higher from 2015 to 2017 -- representing most of ExxonMobil's total production gains. Liquids and liquids linked to natural gas are projected to account for 69% of total production by 2017.

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