The 3 Best Stocks to Invest in Exploration and Production

By Markets Fool.com

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Source: ConocoPhillips

Oil prices have been clobbered over the past year sending oil stocks spiraling downward. For many investors it's a time to think about buying beaten down oil names. Investors looking for the best stocks to invest in the upside of oil, should take a closer look at America's top exploration and production companies as these offer more upside to oil prices, but don't come with the downside of many of their debt laden peers. In my opinion, the cream of the crop are ConocoPhillips , Devon Energy ,and EOG Resources .

Why ConocoPhillips?
ConocoPhillips is the largest independent oil and gas company in America, which means it doesn't own any refineries. Instead, it's a pure exploration and production company, and a very good one at that. As the following slide shows it is one of the best run oil and gas companies in the world as its returns on capital employed are in the top tier of its peer group, which includes both integrated and independent oil companies.

Source: ConocoPhillips Investor Presentation

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Those strong returns enable ConocoPhillips turn capital into cash flow at a much higher rate than most of its rivals. Further, the company boasts a strong balance sheet, which will help it weather the downturn while providing it with the flexibility to be opportunistic if a compelling acquisition opportunity arises. These characteristics make ConocoPhillips one of the best E&P companies in the world.

Why Devon Energy?
Like ConocoPhillips, Devon Energy is a very strong operating company. For example, over the past year the company has exceeded its production growth guidance for three straight quarters. On top of that Devon boosted its 2015 oil production growth outlook by 7.5% above the previous range despite the fact it cut capex by 6%. Said another way, the company is producing more oil for less money, which is exactly what we'd want to see in a low oil price environment.

Devon Energy also has an exceptionally strong balance sheet, which provides it with a lot of flexibility during the market turmoil. Add it up, and in Devon Energy we have a company that is an exceptional operator, which is why it is one of the best E&P companies to invest in right now.

Why EOG Resources?
EOG Resources is heading down a slightly different path as it's currently not growing its oil production in the current environment. Instead, the company is drilling, but not completing wells as it plans to wait until prices are higher before turning these wells online. One of the reasons for this is because EOG Resources is acutely focused on its returns, which as the following slide shows has been peer leading the past two years.

Source: EOG Resources Investor Presentation

EOG Resources also boasts of a very solid balance sheet with plenty of liquidity, which is vitally important during tough times like the market is experiencing today. In fact, its financial leverage as measured by net debt-to-2015 estimated EBITDAX is the second lowest out of its closest 15 peers, which includes both ConocoPhillips and Devon Energy. That low leverage, along with more than a decade of growth ahead of it just based on its current identified well count, are what makes EOG Resources one of the best exploration and production stocks to buy.

Investor takeaway
Investors looking to profit from a potential rebound in the oil market should take a look at ConocoPhillips, Devon Energy, and EOG Resources. Because these companies only focus on exploration and production it means that they have more upside to rising oil prices in the future. Further, these are not only among the best run oil companies in the country, but all have solid balance sheets making them a safer bet should oil prices head south and stay lower for a few years.

The article The 3 Best Stocks to Invest in Exploration and Production originally appeared on Fool.com.

Matt DiLallo owns shares of ConocoPhillips. The Motley Fool owns shares of Devon Energy and EOG Resources,. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.