ConocoPhillips is securing thousands of acres in emerging resource plays across Canada and the United States as it readies to become a stand-alone explorer, a company executive said Wednesday.

In mid-July the producer launched plans to become a pure-play exploration and production (E&P) company by spinning off the refining and marketing arm as a new publicly traded company (see Daily GPI, July 15). The ultimate goal, said CEO Jim Mulva, is to “create differentiated value for our shareholders.”

The producer now appears to be mapping out its strategy. Now the third ranking U.S.-based producer in total market value — after ExxonMobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. — ConocoPhillips is to become the largest U.S.-based E&P once the spin-off is completed.

ConocoPhillips already has a substantial portfolio of opportunities in the queue across North America’s onshore with unconventional resource projects under way that include the Eagle Ford, Barnett and Bakken shales, and in the Permian Basin. In addition to its Alaskan and offshore businesses, the company has invested in Canada’s oilsands and liquefied natural gas.

CFO Jeff Sheets, who spoke with energy analysts during a conference call Wednesday, provided a glimpse of how aggressively ConocoPhillips plans to compete in North America but he offered little color on the portfolio additions.

“We already hold very substantial positions” in the Bakken and Eagle Ford shales, he noted. “We acquired that quite a while ago” and the company has “running room with the acreage we have already.” With “acreage going for a very handsome price right now, we were looking to add acreage in more prospective, not as developed, plays while we are building out and exploiting acreage previously acquired…”

Sheets said “most” of the acreage acquired is liquids-weighted, which pulls in higher margins. About two-thirds of the land is in Canada, including in the Canol Shale in northern Canada, with the remainder in the United States. The purchases are in sync with ConocoPhillips’ strategy to build cash for every barrel in the ground. Natural gas, with its persistently low prices, for now doesn’t fit into that strategy.

The still-to-be developed property will be kept under wraps for a bit, Sheets said. “We find ourselves in a position where we don’t want to say more than that. It’s a competitive world out there and we don’t want to give our competitors information.” The investment community will begin to hear some noise in 2012, when development is under way.

“We’re taking a hard look now at what the 2012 level of expenditure is going to be…We can see that we could be up another $1 billon next year.” The capital budget this year is set at about $13.5 billion. The “level of spending” in North America will depend on whether there’s enough third-party infrastructure to carry the production to market.

“Our activities continue to ramp up…Currently in the Eagle Ford we are producing 24,000 boe/d,” said Sheets. “The results are encouraging but we do have some production curtailments due to third-party condensate trucking constraints.” ConocoPhillips was operating 13 rigs in the Eagle Ford during the quarter and expects to increase the rig count to 16 by year’s end.

“We’re also planning to increase activity in the Bakken and in North Barnett in 2012,” where the “rig count is expected to nearly double by the end of next year,” he said. Together with the Permian Basin operations, production currently is around 30,000 boe/d.

“As we continue to develop our Lower 48 opportunities, we are finding opportunities for increased investments with strong economic returns,” he said. “We’ve already allocated $500 million to these activities and we look for more increased investment in 2012.”

The “key” to North America’s growth, said the CFO, “is our assessment of capacity, of service providers, drillers and crews and our ability to bring production on line as quickly as…the build-out of infrastructure and takeaway capacity increases…The level of spending will be consistent with what we think we can have with offtake.”

ConocoPhillips followed the crowd and is moving rigs from gas basins to liquids-rich and oil plays. The move resulted in the loss of 16,000 boe/d in natural gas-weighted output during 2Q2011. Including asset sales, gas-weighted output was 28,000 boe/d lower in the latest period. Total production was 1.64 million boe/d, which was down from 900,000 boe/d in the year-ago period. Global production in 2011 is expected to be 1.625-1.65 million boe/d.

Net profits totaled $3.4 billion ($2.41/share) in the second quarter, down from $4.2 billion ($2.77) a year earlier. About $6.3 billion in cash was generated from operations during the quarter, and the company also funded a $3.1 billion capital program, repurchased $3.1 billion of common stock and paid $900 million in dividends.