Pardon me while I crawl out on a limb: It seems to me that we could be seeing the early stages of what may become a wholesale -- and self-imposed -- breakup of the big integrated oil companies.

Indeed, to my way of thinking, ConocoPhillips' (NYSE:COP) disclosure that it likely will sell its remaining 600 company-owned gasoline stations to PetroSun West, a western U.S. operator of what were once called "service stations" -- a term that no longer fits -- appears to be another minor step in the disintegration direction. The announcement follows similar approaches planned or completed by ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and BP (NYSE:BP).

Beyond that, I wouldn't be surprised to see upstream-downstream combinations begin to fade at Big Oil. Indeed, earlier this month, Marathon (NYSE:MRO), the fourth largest of the U.S.-based integrated operators, announced that it was considering breaking itself into two parts, one made up of exploration and production, and the other comprised of the refining and marketing units.

Fine. Selling their retail units makes all sorts of financial and political sense for the integrated companies. By getting out of the retail business, the companies exit a business with low margins and lessen their customers' association with them when they get hosed at the pump. But does it really make sense to assume that other integrated companies could contemplate the Marathon approach and ultimately separate exploration and production from refining?

I think it does. Just look at Exxon's most recent quarter, wherein it watched upstream profits jump by 68%, only to suffer a 54% drop in refining and marketing income. And Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A) saw its upstream yield jump by 90%, only to have a portion of the gain chipped away by low U.S. refinery margins. While falling oil prices would undoubtedly fix that balance somewhat, I'm one who thinks we're in something of a temporary respite from climbing crude.

What does this mean for Foolish investors? Think about it: The independent producers have already gotten to the more streamlined form that I think the majors are eyeing. That's all the more reason why I believe that, while Exxon is a terrific proxy for the integrated group today, for the intermediate or long term, your best bets are the independent likes of Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE:APC) or Devon Energy (NYSE:DVN).

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't have a financial interest in any of the companies mentioned. He does welcome your comments. The Fool has a disclosure policy.