On Friday, Chevron (NYSE: CVX), the second largest of the U.S.-domiciled Big Oil companies, brought down the curtain on a three-day run of earnings releases by the group. But while all the companies turned in results that topped those of a year ago, our changing world is already turning that positive direction into something of a crescendo of criticism.

For the quarter, the company reported earnings of $6.2 billion, 36% above last year's $4.6 billion. The per-share metric came to $3.09, compared with $2.27 for the first quarter of 2010. Revenue rose by 25% to $60.34 billion. Beyond that, while it's not typically included within Big Oil, Total (NYSE: TOT) helped wrap things up by also reporting on Friday. The French company generated adjusted net income of $4.2 billion, or $1.89 per share, versus $3.2 billion, or $1.42 per share -- up 34% on the net income line.

An upstream paddling boost
Looking specifically at Chevron, the company's upstream earnings reached $5.98 billion, versus $4.72 billion last year. During the intervening year, the company joined the U.S. unconventional gas parade by buying Atlas Energy, a producer with operations in the Pennsylvania portion of the Marcellus shale. Furthermore, the company recently received its first post-moratorium deepwater drilling permit in the Gulf of Mexico. As CEO John Watson noted, "The resumption of deepwater drilling activity in the Gulf of Mexico is vital to improving our nation's energy security and supporting economic recovery."

Internationally, Chevron is involved in numerous liquefied natural gas projects. Near the coast of Western Australia, for instance, the company is the largest stakeholder and operator of the massive Gorgon LNG Project, which it shares with ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM) and Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE: RDS-B).

With the benefit of stronger refining margins, Chevron's downstream earnings increased to $622 million, compared with $196 million in the first quarter last year. However, along with the likes of ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP), the company is trimming its exposure to the sector. Included in the properties being jettisoned are its 220,000 barrels-per-day Pembroke Refinery in the U.K. and a fuels and lubricants business in Spain.

A rather crude change
While it's too early to indicate a trend -- although I have a sneaking suspicion that it will become one before long -- Chevron is switching its benchmark for production-sharing contracts from West Texas intermediate crude to higher-priced Brent that dominates much of the international sphere. With the spread between the two grades having opened a yawning gap of late, Chevron's contractual volumes were lowered by 1,200 barrels per day for every $1 hike in Brent. 

Chevron's results for the quarter indicate the variable forces at work in forming the earnings of an integrated company. For instance, a quarter that was just two days shorter than its predecessor reduced production in Angola, Australia, and Kazakhstan and trimmed Chevron's earning by $255 million. Furthermore, foreign currency effects resulted in more than a doubling of the related loss in 2010's final quarter, while pegging production to WTI reduced output from the sequentially prior quarter by 22,000 barrels per day.

A Totally rising sun
As usual, Total was involved in a variety of fossil-fuel-related activities. For instance, it sold its Cameroon exploration and production facility and is on its way to disposing of other upstream, downstream, and chemicals assets, which together are expected to generate about $10 billion this year.

However, perhaps the French company's biggest news involved its intention to spend about $1.37 billion to acquire a 60% stake in California-based SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWRA). As its name clearly indicates, SunPower is a solar technology provider, second in value among companies operating in that group to First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR).

Total's management maintains that it will continue to concentrate on oil and natural gas. At the same time, there is little love lost between traditional energy and what the group considers to be "green" interlopers. Indeed, ExxonMobil Vice President Ken Cohen recently vented his feelings about U.S. government subsidies to the green group, which he said still add up to sources that can't compete with their traditional hydrocarbon rivals.

It's been a long time since oil and gas companies (especially the Big Oil behemoths) have been high on anyone's popularity charts. In fact, I once produced a thesis that looked back on efforts in the Congress amid the Arab oil embargoes to "punish" overzealous OPEC for its price increases by dismembering the biggest U.S. integrated companies. Explain that logically. I couldn't.

It's the whole package
I will wager -- were I inclined to do such things -- that the higher crude prices that have now led to earnings increases of 60% or higher by the likes of ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell will add significant negative attention to the group. For instance -- and as an economic judgment, rather than a political one -- President Barack Obama has already sanctioned a Justice Department investigation into the role of trading and speculation on the recent run-up in crude oil and gasoline prices. 

Trading may actually be affecting commodities prices. I won't argue otherwise. But let's not forget the Federal Reserve's role in the profligate printing of money that has created a progressively punier greenback. And then there' expanding gasoline demand -- mainly in China -- not to mention our nation's intransigence regarding the development of a cogent energy policy, along with spreading geopolitical shakiness across a growing portion of our planet.

So while I'd relish reduced crude prices and pump pain, I'm not betting on either, at least for a while. As such, I suggest that Fools benefit from My Watchlist, our free, customized stock monitoring service, to keep tabs on key members of the all-important energy industry. My first choice from Big Oil is ExxonMobil. What's yours?