California-based Chevron (NYSE:CVX), the nation's second-largest member of the Big Oil contingent, managed to ride record-high crude prices early in the quarter, along with stronger refining and marketing results, to expectation-clobbering earnings for the most recent quarter.

Chevron topped EPS expectations by nearly 20%. For the quarter, its earnings reached $7.89 billion, or $3.85 a share, compared to last year's $3.72 billion, or $1.75 a share. Analysts following the company had expected only $3.25 a share. The company's results followed strong performances from other integrated producers, such as ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), ConocoPhilllips (NYSE:COP), and European-based BP (NYSE:BP) and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS-A).

The company managed to raise its upstream income by 80%, despite the effects of hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which together caused a decline of about 150,000 barrels of daily oil equivalent production in September. In addition, the storms cost the company about $400 million in upstream income, a slug of which was offset by gains from the sale of upstream assets.

Chevron's downstream segment -- refining, marketing, and transportation -- also boosted its earnings by about 385%, since margins improved when crude prices fell. The change was especially pronounced in the U.S., which lost money in the third quarter of 2007.

But while the company and its integrated brethren cleaned up in the most recent quarter, with oil prices starting the period at above $140 a barrel and refinery margins improving later in the period, the real question becomes what the future likely holds for the group. The answer, of course, depends on the future for commodities prices; beyond the shortest timeframe, it's completely unpredictable.

But even if crude prices slide further, the major companies with the strongest balance sheets, such as Exxon and Chevron, will benefit from the acquisitions opportunities that will result and from a likely reduction in oilfield services costs. On those bases, along with the dividends generally paid by the big guys, I'd urge Fools to keep a close watch on Chevron and its Big Oil integrated peers.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He does welcome your questions, comments, and college football picks. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.