Wires

UPDATE 2-Exxon CEO sticks to spending targets as oil prices tumble

Jennifer Hiller and Shariq Khan

(Adds comments from analyst, CEO)

NEW YORK, March 5 (Reuters) - Two years into an ambitious growth plan to revive earnings at the largest U.S. oil company, Exxon Mobil said on Thursday it would stick to its plans to "lean in" to spending even as its rivals trim costs.

Oil prices have fallen over 20% this year, the lowest natural gas prices in decades, and a long-term industry outlook is clouded as well by a push toward cleaner fuel and pressure from investors for higher returns.

Still, Exxon sees a chance to grow while its peers underinvest in new projects. It plans to spend between $30 billion and $35 billion a year through 2025. Spending will rise from $31 billion last year to about $33 billion this year.

The company is "mindful of the current market environment," but will stay with its strategy of "leaning into this market when others have pulled back," Exxon's Chief Executive Darren Woods said at the company's annual investor day meeting.

Exxon is likely "in for another tough year," said Biraj Borkhataria, analyst with RBC Europe Limited. With weak oil and gas prices and muted refining margins, Exxon will "barely" cover its capital spending with free cash flow and its dividend coverage will be "the worst" among its rivals, he said.

Its growth plans include a big bet on U.S. shale, where output has surged, making the United States the worlds largest oil producer, and on Guyana, where an Exxon-led consortium has made one of the biggest discoveries in years.

On Tuesday, Exxon's closest U.S.-rival Chevron said it has up to $80 billion in its war chest that it could use for shareholder returns over the next five years regardless of oil prices.

As the two companies race to become the first to produce 1 million barrels of oil-equivalent per day in Permian, the top U.S. oilfield, Exxon said Thursday it will exceed that target by 2024.

The entire oil industry has fallen out of favor with investors, but Exxon, once the industrys cash flow and profits leader, has tumbled particularly hard.

Total returns for Exxon over the last five years have fallen into negative territory, while the S&P 500 returned 64%. Rivals Chevron, Total and BP have seen positive returns, while Royal Dutch Shell has been flat. (Reporting by Jennifer Hiller in New York and Shariq Khan in Bengaluru; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Bernadette Baum)

Related Tags