Exxon touts growing dividends, cutting spending as climate challenges loom for Big Oil

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Exxon Mobil Corp on Wednesday unveiled plans to grow dividends and curb spending with projections that were less bold than previous years after the top U.S. oil and gas producer posted a historic annual loss for 2020.

FILE PHOTO: Darren Woods, Chairman & CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation attends a news conference at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., March 1, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo

Investor pressure has mounted for Exxon to cut costs, improve financial returns and better prepare for the energy transition to lower-carbon fuels.

At its investor day presentation, the company reaffirmed plans to keep project spending between $16 billion and $19 billion in 2021, and between $20 billion and $25 billion a year through 2025.

It expects output to remain flat at around 3.7 million barrels of oil and gas per day through mid-decade as it focuses on boosting cash flow instead.

Before the pandemic, and to the dismay of many investors, Chief Executive Darren Woods promised to spend as much as $35 billion per year on projects. The company made costly misfires in recent years by overspending on shale and oil sands projects that it later wrote down.

But after the pandemic slashed energy demand, Exxon cut spending by nearly a third – reducing the value of its shale gas properties by more than $20 billion. It also trimmed workers and added debt.

Shares were up a fraction to $56.38 and have risen by more than a third so far this year.

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The company is trying to pitch a skeptical Wall Street that it has embraced cost-cutting, with much of its investor pitch focused on cost reductions, cash flow and earnings projections.

Woods pitched the company’s new Low Carbon Solutions Business, where he sees near-term opportunities in carbon capture and storage and carbon offsets.

“There’s growing momentum and opportunity,” said Woods. “The questions are at what cost and for what return?”

Exxon’s oil and gas production spending will focus on Guyana, Brazil and the Permian Basin, where lower shale aspirations appear to be the reason for the company’s flat production outlook, said Biraj Borkhataria, analyst with RBC Capital Markets.

Exxon expects around 400,000 barrels of daily Permian output daily this year, growing to 700,000 by 2025 “based on market conditions,” said Senior Vice President Neil Chapman. Two years ago, it forecast production of 1 million barrels per day in the Permian as early as 2024.

Exxon’s overall output is likely “to steadily shift from gas to liquids, which is at odds with most peers,” Borkhataria said.

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Exxon has drawn the ire of activist investors focused on climate, but since December the company has said it would reduce oilfield greenhouse gas emissions. It has not set a company-wide emissions target.

Exxon plans to spend $3 billion through 2025 on its Low Carbon business, or about 3% of its capital spending, up from about 1% previously. “But it is still far from the double-digit levels of companies such as Shell and Total,” said Pavel Molchanov, analyst with Raymond James.

On Monday, Exxon named activist investor Jeffrey Ubben and former Comcast executive Michael Angelakis to its board amid pressure by prominent shareholders. Engine No. 1, a newly formed activist firm, is trying to place four new directors on Exxon’s board.

A coalition of investors that oversees $2.5 trillion in assets on Wednesday said the energy giant had taken “initial steps in the right direction” but that more work lay ahead.

“Maybe the best news about the board additions is that the ‘our way or the highway’ position that Exxon has taken for many years may be changing,” said Mark Stoeckle, senior portfolio manager at Adams Funds.

Exxon’s plans to reduce operating expenses by $6 billion a year “will also be an important marker” for investors, Stoeckle said.

Exxon expects $2 billion in savings alone from its workforce cuts, said Andrew Swiger, chief financial officer.

On Tuesday it said it would cut its workforce in Singapore by about 7%.

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