Will ExxonMobil's exploration and production drought continue?
That's the most pressing question facing the world's largest energy company—and incidentally, the most valuable company by market capitalization, having wrested that mantle back from Apple—as it prepares to report second-quarter earnings on Thursday.
Exxon's stock is up about 7 percent year-to-date, but analysts have cast wary eyes on its exploration and production (E&P) activities. Exxon saw total E&P profit tumble by 10 percent in the first quarter, with oil and natural gas production falling by nearly 4 percent to around 4.4 million barrels of oil per day.
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US production soars, yet Exxon's doesn't
Production figures are expected to be heavily scrutinized by markets when the oil and gas giant releases its second-quarter results.
Analysts expect Exxon to report a profit of $1.90 a share, up from $1.80 a year ago, according to a consensus estimate from Thomson Reuters. Revenue is seen at $105.54 billion, down from $127.36 billion during the same period last year.
The company was not immediately available for comment.
Exxon's E&P conundrum may seem curious, in light of the shale revolution that's transforming the U.S. into a fossil fuel powerhouse. Exxon has invested in key North American shale hot spots like North Dakota's Bakken region and Canada's Kearl oil sands, but those investments are still in the early stages.
"U.S. production for Exxon has been essentially stable," said Pavel Molchanov, senior vice president of energy equity research at Raymond James & Associates.
He estimates that Exxon produced just more than 4 million barrels per day in its most recent quarter, a 2 percent decline from a year ago, largely because of weak production in the North Sea. Since peaking in 1999, production in that region has dropped by more than half, taking a toll on Exxon's bottom line.
"Exxon is one of the biggest producers of oil/gas in the North Sea, and that's a production area that's in perpetual decline," Molchanov added. "North Sea production down is double digits, year over year—that always negatively impacts production."
Other analysts have become more optimistic about Exxon's medium-term prospects. In a research note this month, analysts at Goldman Sachs said they came away from a roadshow "feeling better about [Exxon's] outlook." Company executives have owned up to the disappointing performance of exploration and production, the firm wrote, giving reasons for cautious optimism.
"Recognition of the drivers of underperformance gives us confidence that Exxon will look to address the issues," Goldman wrote.
"To the extent the company can actually deliver positive … E&P volume growth (1-4 percent per annum) in coming years, with improving margins and free cash flow, we believe upside would likely exist to its share price valuation," the firm added.
Still, with U.S. output having surged by 14 percent in the past year alone, some observers have questioned why Exxon can't get more juice out of domestic production. West Texas Intermediate has surged by more than 19 percent year-to-date, a development that should be bullish for Exxon and other oil producers.
Yet soaring U.S. oil and natgas production have yet to trickle down into Exxon's bottom line. Brian Youngberg, an analyst at Edward Jones, says the oil giant was "late" to exploit the shale boom, and as a result may be struggling to grow its unconventional energy business.
Raymond James' Molchanov said the company's longer-term strategic view is precluding it from over-investing in shale hot spots like Bakken and Texas' Eagle Ford, which are dominated by smaller, independent exploration companies.
"They've always acted with the next 20 years in mind," Molchanov said. "Exxon is not going to go overboard in suddenly ramping up spending in areas just to get production growth."
—By CNBC's Javier David