Like so many other oil and gas producers, Pioneer Natural Resources (NYSE:PXD) has changed its stripes many times over the years since it went public in 1997. After years of developing various oil and gas prospects in far-reaching corners of the world such as Argentina, Tunisia, and South Africa, the company found its sense of purpose in the North American shale game. Since then, it has divested its global assets and has focused exclusively on becoming America's premier shale driller, aiming to produce 1 million barrels per day by 2026.

Investors who bought into Pioneer's stock several years ago are sitting pretty, with shares up more than 225% over the past decade. Finding gems like this isn't easy, but we asked our energy contributors to highlight a few stocks they think have the same kind of market-crushing performance in them. Here's why they picked Parsley Energy (NYSE:PE), Cabot Oil & Gas (NYSE:COG), and Ultra Petroleum (OTC:UPL)

drilling pipes next to rig

Image source: Getty Images.

Like father, like son

Matt DiLallo (Parsley Energy): Permian Basin-focused driller Parsley Energy is almost a mirror image of Pioneer Natural Resources, just much earlier in its life cycle. That's no coincidence, because Parsley Energy's CEO, Bryan Sheffield, is a third-generation oilman whose father is none other than the recently retired CEO of Pioneer Natural Resources. Needless to say, he's following the value-creation blueprint of his father in hopes of replicating Pioneer's success.

The foundation of that plan was to build a scale position in the high-return Permian Basin, where new wells can earn between 30% and 50% at $40 oil. The company has done that by making a series of acquisitions to become the second-largest acreage holder in the Midland Basin side of the Permian behind Pioneer. That said, the younger Sheffield has also bought land in the equally oil-rich Delaware Basin portion of the play, giving Parsley Energy dual growth engines.

Another hallmark of a Sheffield-led oil company is eschewing debt, instead opting to raise equity to finance acquisitions and high-return drilling. Because of that, Parsley Energy has low leverage and lots of liquidity, which gives it the capital to fund robust production growth in the current market environment. In fact, the company expects to grow output more than 50% by the end of this year. Meanwhile, with roughly 8,300 additional high-return drilling locations in its inventory, Parsley Energy can continue growing at a brisk pace for the next several years even if crude oil remains below $50 per barrel, with accelerated growth potential if oil prices rebound.

While Parsley Energy has only been public for 12 quarters, it has already delivered robust growth and shareholder returns over that short history, giving it a good head start as it aims to replicate Pioneer's market-smashing returns in the coming years.

Doesn't have Permian position, so investors don't seem to care

Tyler Crowe (Cabot Oil & Gas): While the investing media continues to extol the virtues of the Permian Basin and its oil production lately, they are forgetting another incredibly prolific shale basin: The Marcellus and Utica formations. These two natural gas sources that just happen to be stacked on top of each other contain 1,262 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas. There's enough gas in these two shale formations to fuel the entire United States for 45 years! 

The prolific nature of the Marcellus and Utica formations gives shale producers there the potential to generate incredible return rates for years to come, and few companies are better positioned to do it than Cabot Oil & Gas. Cabot may not have the largest acreage position in these formations -- it has rights on 179,000 acres in Northeast Pennsylvania -- but it gets more out of that acreage position than any other producer. Cabot's current cash production costs are $1.15 per thousand cubic feet, a majority of which is in transportation. Heck, even one of Cabot's most direct competitors -- Range Resources -- admits in its investor presentation that Cabot has the lowest gas production costs among their peer group. 

operator specific breakeven costs for various gas producers, shows Cabot as #1 and Range at #2

Image source: Range Resources investor presentation.

With such low costs, Cabot has plans to expand production at an 8% to 12% rate in 2017 while remaining free cash flow positive. Cabot estimates that it has a drilling inventory of more than 3,000 wells on this acreage position, with plans to drill about 60 locations in 2017. Even if the company accelerates its drilling program, it has an ample amount of inventory to drill for decades. 

Cabot may not be tied to the Permian, but investors shouldn't overlook the potential of this low-cost producer. 

A low-cost, high-return natural gas version of Pioneer

Jason Hall (Ultra Petroleum): After emerging from bankruptcy in 2016 -- and being the incredibly rare company to actually emerge with existing shareholders still holding a significant portion of it -- Ultra Petroleum is in an enviable position in the natural gas industry as one of the lowest-cost producers in North America. 

This is for three reasons: First, Ultra's deal with its debtors and creditors allowed the company to emerge from bankruptcy with minimal debt compared to most oil and gas producers. This is a significant financial benefit. Second, the company has begun hedging a portion of its natural gas production, a move that gives it both a predictable amount of cash flow and downside protection if natural gas prices fall sharply.

Third (and potentially most important going forward) is Ultra's fantastic assets. Last quarter, the company paid $1.64 per Mcfe of natural gas it produced, compared to what was an already-cheap $2.42/Mcfe in the year-before period. 

The combination of its strong balance sheet and very low production costs has Ultra in a very enviable position in the natural gas business, with a lot of downside protection investors should prioritize. And with the demand for natural gas for electricity generation, domestic manufacturing, and exports all set to grow in coming years, Ultra is in an excellent position to profit as well. 

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.