Big Oil has its place -- there's nothing wrong with huge, stable enterprises primarily focused on generating and returning capital to shareholders. Heck, I even own shares of one of the big boys in the field (China's PetroChina (NYSE:PTR)). But there's certainly something to be said for the smaller, more nimble independent operators that are proving their ability to react to today's high energy prices even more quickly.

At or near the top of that list for me is Occidental Petroleum (NYSE:OXY) -- not a small company by any reasonable definition, but still much smaller than the likes of Exxon (NYSE:XOM) or ConocoPhilips (NYSE:COP).

For the fourth quarter, Occidental reported that revenue rose more than 40% and that so-called core earnings were up more than 70%. Results were led by the oil and gas business -- segment earnings rose 57% on a combination of higher realized prices and increased production (although much more of the former than the latter). Unlike many other oil companies, the chemicals business was actually a positive contributor here, with core segment earnings climbing 37%.

Occidental largely enjoyed the best of both worlds with the oil/gas business. Prices were much higher, and the company reported that daily average production climbed nearly 6% from last year's level. While rising operating costs are a reason for some caution, Occidental continues to be one of the more effective and efficient independents when it comes to the costs of finding, developing, and exploiting energy assets.

Even though I'm no longer counting on much help from the energy markets for these stocks (in fact, I would expect to see oil prices ease off a bit), I still like Occidental's position. It has meaningful new production coming on line, including production from Libya, and it has a good historical record of reaping significant cash flow from their production. You certainly need to exercise some caution when getting into the energy sector today, but I think Occidental is a fine place to begin your search.

For more Foolish thoughts on energy:

Fool contributor Stephen Simpson owns shares of PetroChina but has no financial interest in any other stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares). The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.