One day the news is all aflutter about disagreements with Iran, and oil prices go up. The next day, there's news of a potential compromise, and prices ease back. Or maybe there are worries about storms (be they hurricanes or Alberta clippers) one week, then concerns about slowing demand in Western economies the next. Simply put, energy prices are traders' playthings, and that can make it hard for the individual investor to figure out what to do with a company like ConocoPhilips (NYSE:COP).

We're all fairly familiar with Conoco's fourth-quarter story by now. Revenue was up 30%, as high realized prices compensated for basically flat production. More revenue at the top led to better efficiency, and income from continuing operations climbed more than 52% for the quarter.

Conoco's case did offer at least a little something different. The company is the second-largest U.S. refiner, and refining and market income fell 24% from the third quarter due to the lingering impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In particular, the company's Alliance refinery is still working its way back to normalcy; the company hopes to have the facility running more smoothly by the end of the month.

Also worth noting: Conoco's interest in LUKOIL, the fast-growing Russian energy concern. LUKOIL recently announced a major find in the Caspian that could vault it to the No. 1 spot in worldwide reserves among non-government-owned companies. Why does this matter to Conoco? Because the company owns a sizeable 16% or so of LUKOIL.

For most of the major oil companies, be they ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) or BP (NYSE:BP), the story is pretty much the same: Low production growth makes them even more reliant upon energy prices for overall expansion. At least in Conoco's case, investor skepticism over the Burlington Resources (NYSE:BR) acquisition has made the shares relatively cheaper. While the stock doesn't seem like a screaming bargain on its own merits, it might be a reasonable place for investors still looking to make bets on the energy cycle.

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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).