Natural gas price drop hit Exxon in first quarter

Analysts expect Exxon Mobil to keep producing natural gas despite low prices

Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- Exxon Mobil Corp. has traditionally taken a long-term view of the world's energy needs.

That's why it didn't react as its some of its peers did this year to a plunge in U.S. natural gas prices. It kept its natural gas rigs pumping while Chesapeake Energy Corp., ConocoPhillips and others were busy shutting down many of theirs.

Exxon's commitment to natural gas will undoubtedly cut into its profits in the first quarter, analysts said.

The Irving, Texas, energy giant so far has been willing to take a short-term hit to its bottom line.

It believes natural gas demand will pick up in coming decades and replace coal by 2025 as the second most popular energy source behind crude oil. When demand returns, Exxon should be ready. It bought XTO Energy in 2010 for more than $30 billion to become America's largest natural gas producer.

In January, Exxon told analysts that it remained committed to its natural gas wells. Since then, natural gas prices have dropped another 20 percent and hit the lowest level since January 2002. Analysts are wondering if prices are now low enough to force Exxon's hand.

"It'll be interesting to see what they do," Argus Research analyst Phil Weiss said. "I can't imagine they're making a lot of money selling gas."

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Will Exxon shut down some of its natural gas wells? Analysts are betting that Exxon will stay committed to its long-term plan to grow its natural gas business.

WHY IT MATTERS: If Exxon commits to cutting natural gas production in the U.S., it could spark a rebound in natural gas prices. That may affect cooling bills this summer since many utilities burn natural gas to generate electricity that runs air conditioners.

WHAT'S EXPECTED: Analysts polled by FactSet expect Exxon to earn $2.10 per share on revenue of $124.8 billion.

LAST YEAR'S QUARTER: Exxon earned $10.65 billion, or $2.14 per share, on revenue of $114 billion in the first three months of 2011.

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