If you've caught any of our recent coverage of the other supermajor oil companies, Total's (NYSE:TOT) Q1 results will not come as a total surprise. Production was flat and price realizations were down, but refining margins were up. It all shakes out to a 14% decline in adjusted operating profit from this time last year. Adjusted cash flows held up better, however, with only a 4% slip.

After viewing the weak group-wide upstream results, perhaps you're wondering why the integrated oils don't shift more toward the downstream -- that is, to the refining and marketing segments that are showing a lot more buoyancy these days. Despite appearances, upstream exploration and production is still the most profitable segment of the oil and gas chain. For Total, the upstream's return on average capital employed -- an industry variant of the more familiar return on equity -- is running at 34%, versus downstream's 25%. There is no reason to expect those numbers to converge, so the upstream will continue to draw the heaviest capital investment.

This state of affairs favors a company like Total, which, along with ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and BP (NYSE:BP), is a historical leader in exploration. The company has been doing particularly well in Africa, which just overtook Europe as Total's greatest producing region on a barrel of oil-equivalent basis. Note the company's exploration highlights for the quarter: Nigeria, Congo, Angola. Total revised downward its expected production for the year, but its medium-range target of 5% average production growth through 2010 will hinge on continued success through the drill bit.

While Total is facing plenty of political drama in countries like Iran and Nigeria, that's pretty much par for the course. One can only expect the oil business to get more political, not less, as NOCs (national oil companies) such as Petrobras (NYSE:PBR) and Statoil (NYSE:STO) come to dominate the scene. A company like Total will continue to be relevant, however, so long as it can provide critical technology and project management to the NOCs.

Total is relevant to income investors as well. That's why the Motley Fool Income Investor team tapped the company back in 2004. To see what other solid dividend-payers have been recommended, take the service out for a free 30-day test drive.

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Fool contributor Toby Shute has never seen the film Total Recall. He doesn't own shares in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.