One thing is quite clear: The world still needs lots of oil. In fact, global oil demand is expected to continue growing until 2040. I think the oil stocks with the best potential to win here are Occidental Petroleum (NYSE: OXY), Suncor Energy (NYSE: SU), and ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP).

I believe these three offer similar risk profiles as their big oil brethren but with much more upside.

Built like big oil but with more growth

Two things set big oil companies apart from the rest of the industry. Their portfolio is a globally diversified mix of stable oil and gas assets that get integrated with refining and marketing assets to provide some counter-cyclical benefits. While Occidental Petroleum does not own any refining assets, it does own a counter-cyclical chemicals business, as well as midstream assets. Furthermore, it controls a diverse portfolio of producing assets, including shale, enhanced oil recovery, and conventional oil and gas assets in the Middle East. It clearly has the size, scale, and diversification to be considered big oil. 

An offshore drilling rig at sunset.

Image source: Getty Images.

That said, what makes Occidental Petroleum a more compelling buy is that it combines the safety and security of big oil with outsized growth potential. Thanks in part to its prime position in the oil-rich Permian Basin, Occidental Petroleum believes that it can grow its production by 5% to 8% per year over the long term. To put that into perspective, ExxonMobil and Chevron are forecasting low-single-digit production growth through 2020. Furthermore, Occidental's production growth will come mostly from high-margin shale, which should provide it with ample cash flow to continue boosting shareholder distributions, especially if oil prices rebound.

Canada's big oil stock

Suncor Energy is another company that fits the big oil risk profile but with more growth potential. That is because like ExxonMobil and Chevron, it operates several refineries, which it has integrated into its asset base. Furthermore, it controls diverse oil assets, including being the largest producer in the Canadian oil sands, as well as operating offshore platforms in the Canadian Atlantic and the North Sea.

However, where Suncor stands apart from other large oil companies is in its growth potential. In 2017 it expects to grow production by 13%, thanks to recently increasing its stake in the Syncrude oil sands facility, as well as the expectation that it will complete two major projects by the end of next year. In fact, those two projects put the company in the position to deliver 6% compound annual production growth on a per-share basis through 2019 as it ramps up output. That is a pretty healthy growth rate for a company of its size.

An oil sands facility operated by Suncor Energy.

Image source: Suncor Energy Inc.

Flexibility to expand if needed

Once upon a time, ConocoPhillips was considered part of the big oil elite. However, after spinning off its refining, chemicals, and midstream assets into Phillips 66 (NYSE: PSX) a few years back, it no longer qualifies as an integrated oil company. That said, ConocoPhillips still produces a prodigious amount of oil and gas every day through a diverse set of assets around the world, so it is a massive oil company.

Most oil companies of its size lack the flexibility to respond to market conditions because they typically invest in expensive, long-term mega projects. ConocoPhillips, on the other hand, is putting the finishing touches on the bulk of its major projects and is instead turning its attention to short-cycle shale plays going forward. This shift gives the company the ability to ramp its production up in response to rising oil prices. For example, at $50 oil the company can grow output by up to 2% per year. However, it can ramp that rate up to 4% at $60 oil and up to 8% at $70 oil if needed. That is flexibility and growth potential that few companies of its size can match.

Investor takeaway

Most big oil companies are so large that they are unable to grow their production by more than a low-single-digit rate, and they cannot quickly respond to higher oil prices. That limits their upside potential in a rising oil price environment. On the other hand, large oil companies Occidental Petroleum, Suncor Energy, and ConocoPhillips check most of the big oil boxes while offering much more upside because of their robust growth potential. That is why these three are the best big oil stocks to buy, given the outlook that oil prices should head higher in future years.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.