ConocoPhillips (COP), Marathon Oil Corporation (MRO), Murphy Oil Corporation (MUR): Are Independent Producers Better Investments?

Spinning off refinery operations can be a great opportunity. It allows management to focus all of of their attention on finding and developing new fields, but it also exposes companies to more volatility. Smaller firms can prosper by focusing their resources on bringing a select number of plays online, but watch out for falling production from bigger firms.

The big dog
ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) spun off Philips 66, becoming the largest independent E&P. In the long run, its size may hold the company back. Its latest quarterly operating income of $14.78 per Boe is respectable for such a large firm, but it is being forced into expensive unconventional plays. The company’s own rough estimates project that its base production will fall from 1.5 million barrels of oil equivalent per day (Mmboepd) to 1.0 Mmboepd by 2017.

ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP)The majority of its growth will be found in North America. Between Alaska, Canada and the lower 48, it hopes to bring 505 thousand barrels of oil equivalent per day (Mboepd) online between 2012 and 2017. ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) has jumped on the fracking train. The Eagle Ford, Permian Basin and the Bakken will provide a substantial portion of its growth over the next five years. Don’t expect its Eagle Ford margins to be as high as other producers, as ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) has some of its acreage closer to the gas-rich portion of the formation.

The smaller players
Marathon Oil Corporation (NYSE:MRO) recently spun off its downstream assets into Marathon Petroleum. Marathon Oil Corporation (NYSE:MRO)’s development of the Bakken and Eagle Ford are the main changes boosting its production volumes. Year-over-year, its second quarter U.S. volumes increased 38%. The Eagle Ford alone averaged 80 Mboepd and the Bakken averaged 39 Mboepd.

Looking at Marathon’s margins, it produced $9.35 of operating income per Boe in the most recent quarter, placing it a step below ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP). Marathon Oil Corporation (NYSE:MRO) is hard at work boosting its shale output of crude oil and NGLs relative to natural gas, but this a gradual process and its Boe margins will continue to be under pressure. Libya is a latent liability for the company. With a large amount of political risk in the nation, do not expect things to change anytime soon.

Murphy Oil Corporation (NYSE:MUR) has already spun off its US retail operations into Murphy Oil USA and is exploring the possibility of spinning off its U.K. refining operations. Divesting its refineries will help direct excess cash to developing new fields.