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2014-05-03 19:53:00



The effect of this year's cold winter in the US in pushing up natural gas prices helped ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, two of the largest US oil companies, report earnings significantly above analysts' expectations for the first quarter of 2014.

The price of the gas sold by Exxon in the US rose by 49 per cent compared to the first quarter of 2013, to $4.78 per thousand cubic feet.

The two companies have faced numerous difficulties in their attempts to increase production, and Exxon reported a fall for the quarter while Conoco reported a relatively modest increase. But their earnings have been boosted by higher prices for their production, including Canadian heavy crude from tar sands as well as US gas.

Exxon, which is the world's largest listed oil company by market capitalisation, reported a 4 per cent drop in post-tax net income to $9.1bn, and a 1 per cent drop in earnings per share to $2.10, compared to an average forecast of $1.88.

Conoco, the third-largest US oil and gas producer by market capitalisation, reported underlying net income, excluding the effect of one-off items such as disposal gains, up 29 per cent at $2.25bn.

The fall in Exxon's profits was caused by weakness in its refineries, especially in the US, and its chemicals division. Its worldwide refining profits dropped 47 per cent to $813m.

That was offset by the rising profitability of oil and gas production, especially in the US, where earnings from those operations rose 45 per cent rise to $1.24bn: the sharpest increase for any of Exxon's segments.

Exxon bought heavily into US natural gas with the $41bn acquisition of XTO Energy in 2010, and has been suffering from the subsequent weakness of US gas prices, but the cold weather has helped turn that round.

Exxon's international oil and gas production operations also reported increased profits, up 6 per cent at $6.54bn, even though its production volumes have continued to decline. Oil and gas production averaged 4.15m barrels of oil equivalent per day in the first quarter, down from 4.4m boe/d in the equivalent period of 2013.

Production was hit by the loss of Exxon's share of the international companies' concession in Abu Dhabi, which expired in January, and by weaker demand for natural gas in some countries. That was offset by rising production at Kearl, Exxon's new oil sands project in Canada.

Exxon is working on plans for expansion in Russia in co-operation with Rosneft, the state-controlled oil company, and said those projects would continue in spite of the conflict in Ukraine and sanctions imposed by the US.

David Rosenthal, Exxon's vice-president of investor relations, said on a call with analysts: "With regards to Russia, of course we will comply with all sanctions, but . . . all of the activities that we had originally planned for this year are under way and proceeding as planned."

In a sign of the greater financial discipline being imposed by Exxon and other large oil companies, its capital and exploration spending fell sharply, dropping 28 per cent to $8.44bn, although most of that drop was accounted for by the comparison with 2013 when Exxon paid $3.1bn for Celtic Exploration of Canada.

Conoco was similarly boosted by higher prices for US gas and Canadian oil.

Its results also benefited from a 41 per cent increase in production from operations in the Eagle Ford shale of Texas and the Bakken formation of North Dakota, the two principal centres of the US shale oil revolution. Overall, the group's production from continuing operations, excluding its assets in Libya, was up 1.6 per cent at 1.53m boe/d for the first quarter.

Ryan Lance, Conoco's chief executive, said the company was off to "a great start" in 2014, and added: "This quarter's performance gives us confidence that we are on track to achieve 3 to 5 per cent growth in both volumes and margins".





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