Oil prices continue to march higher. Brent, the global oil benchmark, recently touched $85 a barrel, while WTI, the U.S. oil price benchmark, is just a couple of dollars behind. Crude prices are pushing levels not seen since 2014.
Oil could have further to run. Soaring coal and natural gas prices are forcing power producers in Asia to burn oil, further tightening global supplies.
The potential for even higher oil prices means oil companies could produce even bigger cash windfalls. Three oil companies positioned to cash in on this market are ConocoPhillips (COP -3.35%), Devon Energy (DVN -1.82%), and Pioneer Natural Resources (PXD -2.56%). Here's why that makes them great oil stocks to consider buying in the current environment.
Enhancing an already strong plan
ConocoPhillips built a huge cash war chest in recent years, positioning it to take advantage of opportunities in the oil market. The first one arose last year as it acquired Concho Resources amid the market turmoil to enhance its low-cost position in the oil-rich Permian Basin. The $9.7 billion all-stock deal reduced its average cost of supply below $30 WTI.
Meanwhile, the company recently took advantage of another opportunity. Global energy giant Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A) (RDS.B) is transitioning away from oil due to climate change concerns. Because of that, it put its Permian Basin assets up for sale, which ConocoPhillips scooped up for $9.5 billion in cash. That's a dirt-cheap price since the assets were on track to produce $1.9 billion in free cash flow over the next year based on the oil price outlook when it announced the deal last month. With oil continuing to rise, they could produce even more cash.
That acquisition will enhance ConocoPhillips' operating plan, which was already on track to produce a whopping $70 billion in free cash flow through 2030, assuming that oil prices average $50 a barrel. With crude well over that level, ConocoPhillips could produce an even bigger gusher. It intends to use those funds to repay debt, grow its dividend, and repurchase shares, all of which should create additional value for its shareholders.
A growing dividend gusher
Devon Energy also took advantage of last year's oil market turmoil to make a needle-moving acquisition, merging with WPX Energy in a $12 billion deal. That combination reduced its costs so that Devon could fund its business at $33 WTI this year. Because of that low cost, Devon also launched the industry's first fixed-plus-variable dividend program to return more of its free cash flow to investors.
With oil prices rising, Devon Energy's dividend payments have become bigger. In addition to its base quarterly dividend rate of $0.11 per share, Devon has paid out additional dividends of $0.19, $0.23, and $0.38 per share over the last three quarters.
The variable payments will likely continue rising. Devon only realized $50.34 per barrel for its oil during the second quarter because its oil hedges cost it $13.29 per barrel. With those lower-priced hedges about to expire, Devon's cash flow should keep rising even if crude prices cool off. It plans to pay out up to 50% of its free cash flow via variable dividends each quarter, suggesting investors could continue reaping a windfall.
Accelerating the plan
Pioneer Natural Resources also took advantage of the oil market turmoil to bolster its oil business over the past year. It acquired Parsley Energy in a $7.6 billion deal last October and spent $6.4 billion to purchase DoublePoint Energy this April. Both transactions increased its scale in the Permian Basin, which helped reduce its costs so that it can produce more oil for less money.
Pioneer's initial plan was to start returning some of its growing free cash flow to shareholders next year by adopting a similar dividend framework as Devon. However, booming oil prices drove Pioneer to accelerate its variable dividend program by declaring its first additional payment in August. At $1.51 per share, it was almost triple its base dividend of $0.51 per share. With oil prices rallying and Pioneer's cost-saving initiatives starting to deliver results, that payout could continue growing in the coming quarters.
Cashing in on higher crude oil prices
ConocoPhillips, Devon Energy, and Pioneer Natural Resources took advantage of last year's oil market turbulence to bolster their oil businesses by making needle-moving acquisitions. Those deals boosted their oil production while reducing costs, positioning all three to generate more cash flow. Because of that, they're cashing in on higher oil prices these days. That's giving them the funds to reward investors with higher dividends and share repurchases. Those shareholder returns will likely continue growing along with oil prices, making this trio stand out as some of the top oil stocks to consider buying as crude oil barrels toward $85.