ConocoPhillips ( COP) said its fourth-quarter production will probably rise by about 60,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day from the third quarter, hitting the high end of its expected range of increase. In the third quarter, daily production had dropped to an average of 1.8 million barrels of equivalent from 1.9 million in the second quarter, but Conoco predicted an uptick for the final three months of the year. The outlook includes Syncrude, while excluding the company's investment in Lukoil. Overall, Conoco's average worldwide crude oil refining capacity utilization rate for the fourth quarter is expected to improve to the mid-90% range. Domestically, though, Conoco anticipates its utilization rate to be slightly lower than in the third quarter. At the same time, Conoco said its domestic refining and marketing margins for the fourth quarter will likely decline from the third quarter, continuing a theme that has pressured profits throughout the sector in recent months. Conoco also predicted that exploration expenses will total around $250 million, before taxes, for the quarter. During the fourth quarter, Alaska enacted a new production tax that will probably cost Conoco about $250 million. Roughly $100 million of that amount will be applied retroactively to prior periods in 2006 and 2007. However, Conoco is expecting to save about $350 million, thanks to a tax-rate reduction recently put in place in Canada and the release of escrowed funds in connection with the extinguishment of the Hamaca project's financing debt. At the end of the quarter, Conoco's debt balance should be about $21.7 billion. The company estimated its total fourth-quarter stock buyback at around $2.5 billion, taking the total for the year to $7 billion. Houston-based Conoco plans to report its fourth-quarter results on Jan. 23. Shares were up 0.6% to $88.39 Thursday morning.