When oil prices took a tumble a few years ago, many dividends in the oil patch followed suit. That left investors with smaller checks, or in many cases, none at all. However, after spending the past several years repositioning their businesses to run on lower oil prices, several oil companies are now in the position where they can send more money back to their investors. Three of the largest dividend increases came from Devon Energy (NYSE:DVN), Pioneer Natural Resources (NYSE:PXD), and Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE:APC).

A step in the right direction

In early 2016, Devon Energy made the tough decision to reduce its dividend by 75% to conserve cash during what was an unrelenting decline in oil prices. The move saved it $320 million per year, providing it with more cushion to protect its balance sheet, so it had the financial strength to survive the downturn and take advantage of the eventual upturn.

A person handing over $100 bills.

Image source: Getty Images.

Since that time, Devon has cut costs and sold non-core assets to improve cash flow and its balance sheet. As a result, the company is now generating enough money to grow production at a healthy clip with plenty left over to return more cash to shareholders via a 33% dividend increase and a $1 billion share repurchase program. While that increase only boosted Devon's yield to 1%, and the payout remains well below its peak, it is a step in the right direction and likely the first of many dividend increases in the coming years.

A massive raise but still a puny payout

Unlike many peers, Pioneer Natural Resources had no trouble maintaining its dividend during the oil market downturn. While the company's low leverage and cash-rich balance sheet certainly helped, it also didn't hurt that the payout only consumed a small percentage of its cash flow because it was so tiny, yielding a microscopic 0.05% in recent years.

However, after paying the same minuscule dividend for years, Pioneer Natural Resources wants to begin returning more cash to investors this year, which led it to increase its semiannual payout by 300%. (As impressive as that sounds, Pioneer's stock only yields about 0.2% after that increase, which is below most bank savings accounts.) That raise is likely just the beginning, as the company is on pace to increase cash flow at a 20% compound annual rate through 2026, giving it more money to boost the payout in the coming years.

Two miniature oil barrels on top of U.S. currency.

Image source: Getty Images.

Almost back to the peak

Like Devon Energy, Anadarko Petroleum cut its dividend during the oil market downturn to conserve cash, slashing it 81% in early 2016 in a move that saved it $450 million per year. That additional financial flexibility helped cushion the blow of falling oil prices, giving Anadarko time to enact cost-cutting measures and sell assets to shore up its balance sheet.

Those efforts have paid off. Anadarko is on pace to generate enough money at $60 oil to grow oil production by more than 10% annually with more than $1 billion left over each year. As a result, the company recently announced a 400% dividend increase, putting the payout within just $0.02 per share of its previous peak quarterly rate and boosting the yield to 1.6%. With the company on pace to produce a growing stream of excess cash over the next few years if current oil prices hold up, it should have the fuel to increase the dividend well past that peak.

Generous raises, but still not enticing enough for income seekers

Even after giving investors a big raise this year, these payouts still aren't that attractive. Not only are the current yields well below the 1.9% average of stocks in the S&P 500, but several other oil stocks offer much more attractive payouts. While this trio certainly could grow their dividends to more compelling levels over the next few years, income investors have better options elsewhere.

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