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ConocoPhillips bets $23 billion on U.S. shale oil as rivals retreat

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By Sabrina Valle and Arunima Kumar

HOUSTON (Reuters) - ConocoPhillips Chief Executive Ryan Lance on Monday doubled down on U.S. shale and the world's continued demand for oil with his second blockbuster acquisition in less than a year.

His $9.5 billion purchase of Royal Dutch Shell's West Texas properties, nine months after closing a $13.3 billion deal for Concho Resources, puts the company's future squarely in shale after exiting Canada's oil sands, U.S. offshore and British North Sea fields.

The strategy depends on a world thirsty for cheap oil and Conoco's ability to extract it with less carbon emissions. While Shell, BP and Equinor quit shale for renewable fuels, Lance argues oil and gas will not be soon supplanted.

"We don't believe the existential threat to this business is right around the corner," he told analysts in June.

With Shell's assets, Conoco gets more than 10 years of output and rewards shareholders willing to stick with fossil fuels, said Lance.

"We're going to create a lot more value over the next 10 years and beyond with this acquisition," Lance told analysts on Tuesday, promising to deliver higher returns for shareholders than paying a one-time dividend.

Lance, who became CEO in 2012, joins Chevron and Exxon Mobil in rejecting the shift to solar, wind and batteries embraced by European oil majors. Shareholders want the company to focus on its strengths, he said.

"This is what we're good at. This is what we do really really well," Lance said, referring to generating strong cash flow from modest investments in new oil and gas. The deal increases capital spending by $1 billion per year, but will add $10 billion to free cash flow and shareholder payouts over a decade.

Shell's more efficient assets will help Conoco reduce its carbon emissions per unit of production by as much as half its 2016 levels by 2030, he said.

But the acquisition does not sit well with environmentalists, who this year pushed Conoco to address customers' emissions from using its fuels. In May, 58% of shareholders voted in favor of a non-binding petition to set reduction targets including from products.

"Buying fossil fuel assets is exactly the opposite of what investors actually want," Mark van Baal, founder of Dutch advocacy group Follow This, said in a phone interview. "Eventually he will have to listen," he said.

(Reporting by Sabrina Valle; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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