For the most part, the larger oil companies are relatively similar. Of course, someone has to bring up the rear, but ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) has been doing so in relatively dramatic fashion. The company, which last quarter finished at the end of the earnings growth parade, just announced several plans to improve its returns.

Compared to its big oil peers, Conoco just hasn't been able to keep up. As all Fools know, ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) leads the parade size-wise, and can hold its own with any of the others from a quality standpoint. Chevron (NYSE:CVX) and BP (NYSE:BP) are both solid companies, with BP especially having improved its lot in the past couple of years. It's difficult these days to pick up a newspaper and not spy an article about yet another BP discovery.

Conoco's plans include the sale of about $10 billion in assets during the next couple of years, a 12% cut in its capital spending next year to about $11 billion (which works out to about a 23% pullback from 2008), and bumping its quarterly dividend up to $0.50.

For several years, Conoco has the been a major shopper among the five super-majors, buying a fifth of Russia's Lukoil five years ago, and then spending $35 billion for U.S. independent Burlington Resources. So while ExxonMobil and Chevron have billions in cash -- Exxon made news the other day with a rare $4 billion acquisition off the shore of Ghana -- Conoco would have to work to count up $1 billion from its own cash drawer. Its debt, however, is near $30 billion. All this brings up some questions:

I wonder, for instance, why the company didn't attend to its lopsided balance sheet sooner. And I'm confused about why a company with so little cash is increasing its dividend. And finally, I still can't rationalize why champion balance sheet reader Warren Buffett chose to buy Conoco shares last year, ultimately making his Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) its biggest shareholder. Sure, he got some tax losses out of it, but that's going a bit far.

I suppose my only certainties at this point are to avoid Conoco and, as crude inches up, keep your eyes fixed on the others. Even more specifically, I'm a fan of Exxon, the biggest of the big and maybe the best of the best.

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies above. He does welcome your questions or comments or questions. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection and a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.