Investors who haven't examined the Big Oil companies individually often lump them together, assuming that, other than ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) being the biggest by far, there's not much difference among them. But since I expect crude prices to drift higher during the next couple of years, I also have my eyes cocked on BP (NYSE:BP), which has done wonders to improve its position within the energy industry during the past couple of years.

The U.K.-based company, which has its roots in Iran -- but that's another story -- has finally just about recovered from a series of mishaps that almost pulled it down. The first was a massive 2005 explosion at its Texas City, Texas refinery that killed 15 and injured about 170. Examiners after the event issued a 350-page report that blamed a "corporate blind spot" that caused compromises in the area of safety.

Next, a corroded BP pipeline caused an oil leak in Alaska in 2006 that shut down half of the Prudhoe Bay oilfield for a time. Then in 2007, the company's longtime former CEO, Lord John Browne, made an abrupt departure a couple of months before his planned retirement. Add a fire at a refinery in Indiana during 2007, and you have all the bad news any company needs.

But things have improved dramatically at the company. I give credit for the lion's share of the turnaround to new, stronger management. CEO Tony Hayward, with the help of his strong team, is positively reshaping the company. Just last week, BP named Carl-Henric Svanberg as its new chairman. Svanberg, who has been CEO of the Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson, doesn't have an energy background. But Hayward and his team clearly do, and so Svanberg's perspective just might be a breath of fresh air for the company.

A big part of Hayward's reshaping involves buying and selling corporate assets. For instance, last year, he put $1.9 billion into a joint venture with Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:CHK) in the Fayetteville Shale natural gas play in Arkansas.

And as recently as the end of last week, the company said it was selling other assets, including its interests in Kazakhstan -- for which it expects to receive about $2 billion from buyers that include Russia's Lukoil. BP's intention is to concentrate its efforts in the region on Azerbaijan and Russia. This comes at precisely the time that Italy's Eni (NYSE:E) and some other big companies are intensifying their presence in Kazakhstan.

BP is already one of Russia's largest outside investors. It has a 50-50 joint venture interest with a trio of Russian billionaires in TNK-BP, the third largest oil company in that country. The relationship with its Russian partners has been contentious at best, but it appears that things have settled down, at least for a while. Tranquility there isn't unimportant, since the venture accounts for a substantial fraction of BP's global production and a fifth of its reserves. I wouldn't, however, be surprised if future battles erupt between BP and its Russian partners.

For the sake of perspective, let's look at how BP stacks up in terms of some key metrics against some of the other main members of Big Oil:

Company

Market Cap.

Forward P/E

Forward Div. Yield

ExxonMobil

$336.9 billion

11.1

2.4%

Shell (NYSE:RDS-A)

$154.0 billion

7.6*

6.7%

BP

$147.4 billion

7.8

7.1%

Chevron (NYSE:CVX)

$132.2 billion

8.7

3.9%

ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP)

$61.7 billion

6.8

4.5%

Sources: Yahoo! Finance.
*Trailing P/E; forward estimate not available.

Of course, despite offering the lowest yield, ExxonMobil easily leads the pack in the P/E department -- as it should, given its successes around the world and its solid balance sheet. But also note the yields provided by Shell and BP. Given the recent improvements in BP's management and its operations, I'll take the extra basis points along with Hayward's leadership.

Of course, a key question about BP's yield involves its sustainability. Obviously, there are no guarantees, but speaking in April at the company's annual meeting, exiting Chairman Peter Sutherland said the company's position is that the "right current balance" is to continue paying the dividend and growing the company simultaneously.

For the past decade, unlike Exxon, BP has labored to gain a reputation as the leading green oil company. In fact, back in 2000, it rebranded itself away from its BP Amoco moniker, which reflected the purchase of the American oil company not long before, to "BP: Beyond Petroleum." It's difficult to gauge how successful the program has been. Nevertheless, the company operates an active alternative energy business, and it does seem that BP airs more environmentally related TV commercials than its peers.

So watch carefully what we used to call British Petroleum. For lots of reasons, I'm convinced that we're in a temporary respite from higher crude prices. When the tide turns, you'll want a company as well-positioned as this one tucked away in your portfolio.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't have financial interests in any of the companies mentioned. He does welcome your comments, questions, or golf tips. The Fool has a disclosure policy.