Here’s Why Hess Corp. (HES) Is a Buy: ConocoPhillips (COP), Marathon Oil Corporation (MRO)

A couple of weeks ago, Hess Corp. (NYSE:HES). announced several initiatives that will morph the oil giant into a pure exploration and production (E&P) company by 2014.

The focus will be on higher growth as the company creates a lower risk portfolio of assets. This will be achieved by exiting its retail business, energy marketing and energy trading.

Earnings Analysis: Hess Corp. (NYSE: HES)In tweaking its portfolio, Hess Corp. (NYSE:HES) will divest operations in Indonesia and Thailand. It will also move to monetize its Bakken, North Dakota oil and gas gathering and transportation assets, expected in 2015.

Hess Corp. (NYSE:HES) plans to handsomely return capital directly to shareholders through a dividend increase to $1 per share and a $4 billion share buyback program.

At the urging of activist investor Elliot Management, who has been pushing for Hess Corp. (NYSE:HES) to break up the company, Hess Corp. (NYSE:HES)announced a slate of six “highly qualified” independent directors with “the right mix of corporate leadership and financial expertise, and top level E&P experience.”

In selling non-core assets, Hess will pump more than 90% of its capital into exploration and production.

Hess Corp. (NYSE:HES)’s new goal follows similar moves by ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) and Marathon Oil Corporation (NYSE:MRO), which have also shed refining operations to unlock addition value.

In early March, ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP)o reported it would divest its Canadian tar sand assets and some 37% of its interest in the Australia Pacific LNG project as it balances its holdings. It plans to focus more on unconventional U.S. plays in the South Texas Eagle Ford shale and the Bakken formation. ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) believes the move will boost production and margins by 3-5% annually through 2017.

Marathon Oil spun off its refining and other downstream businesses in June 2011, freeing it to concentrate on oil exploration and development opportunities. Marathon has been bulking its portfolio with a handful of mostly onshore U.S. assets. The aim is to provide 25% annual growth for the company through 2015. It too has a sizable stake and sees great potential in the Eagle Ford Shale and Bakken.

Why the rush to become pure E&P companies?

Big oil companies have the benefit of vast resources to cushion their exploration risks, which has the potential to transform relatively inexpensive properties into much more valuable production assets.