Conoco expanding asset sales; shares rise

HOUSTON Wed Mar 23, 2011 1:08pm EDT

A Conoco Phillips gas station in Boulder, Colorado January 24, 2007. Conoco Phillips will announce its earnings today. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

A Conoco Phillips gas station in Boulder, Colorado January 24, 2007. Conoco Phillips will announce its earnings today.

Credit: Reuters/Rick Wilking

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HOUSTON (Reuters) - ConocoPhillips (COP.N) said it will expand its planned sales of older, higher-cost assets by as much as $10 billion over the next two years, with proceeds earmarked to buy back stock.

The bigger sales, anticipated by Wall Street, helped boost the shares of the third-largest U.S. oil company by 1.5 percent in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Conoco is executing a plan, announced in late 2009 and financed by asset sales, to increase returns for investors through debt reduction, stock buybacks and double-digit increases in dividends.

The company said on Wednesday its annual spending will rise as high as $15 billion over the next several years as it invests in exploration and production projects, including Asia Pacific liquefied natural gas in Australia, oil sands in Canada and shale drilling in South Texas.

Capital expenditures this year are forecast at $13.5 billion.

BIGGER IS BETTER?

The Houston company initially said it would shed $10 billion of its oil and gas properties. On Wednesday it said it plans to sell an additional $5 billion to $10 billion of assets over the next two years.

Conoco did not specify what might be sold, but did say the assets would be mature, high-cost projects, possibly in the North Sea and North America.

The planned asset sales are expected to cut into the company's oil and gas output for the next several years, but a return to growth of 2 percent to 3 percent annually is seen in the long term, Conoco said.

Chief Executive Jim Mulva also told investors at the company's annual analyst meeting that Conoco was committed to reducing its refining capacity in coming years, with its smaller, less sophisticated plants probably targeted for sale.

So far, the only plant officially on the auction block is the Wilhelmshaven refinery in Germany, but Conoco is exploring all options to reduce its exposure to the downstream side of the business, including forming joint ventures and strategic partnerships, Mulva said.

So far, Conoco's asset sales have generated $7 billion. The company has also sold its 20 percent stake in Russian oil company LUKOIL (LKOH.MM) for $8.3 billion.

Mulva told investors he would step down next year when he reaches the company's mandatory retirement age of 65.

"The plans are I will retire sometime in 2012," he said. "We have a pretty robust succession plan."

In October, Conoco announced a management shake-up as part of its plans to line up a successor to Mulva. Potential candidates include former Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM.N) executive Alan Hirshberg and Greg Garland, who headed Conoco's chemical joint venture, Chevron Phillips Chemical Co.

Conoco shares have climbed more than 13 percent this year, outperforming a 9 percent increase in the CBOE index of oil companies .OIX. The company's stock rose 93 cents to $78.15 in afternoon NYSE trading.

(Reporting by Anna Driver; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Dave Zimmerman and John Wallace)

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