Image Source: ConocoPhillips.

What: Shares of leading independent oil company ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) were on fire in April, surging 20%. Fueling that surge was a big rebound in oil prices as well as some surprises in the company's first-quarter earnings report.

So what: The price of crude catapulted in April, with the price of the global oil benchmark, Brent, jumping 21%. Fueling crude's surge was growing optimism that the oil market could be back into balance by the end of the year due to solid demand growth and a projected big decline in U.S. oil production.

While oil was ConocoPhillips' primary catalyst last month, the company did have some other noteworthy news that buoyed its stock price. The bulk of that news came via the company's first-quarter earnings report, which surprised investors after the company turned in a lower-than-anticipated loss for the quarter. That wasn't the only surprise the company had in store, with it also announcing another capex reduction, bringing spending down from $6.4 billion to $5.7 billion, and the issuance of $4.6 billion of low-cost debt.

The company's ability to raise billions in debt at favorable terms is a huge competitive advantage right now given that the credit markets are closed to most other energy companies. In fact, companies like Chesapeake Energy (OTC:CHKA.Q) can't even refinance upcoming debt maturities in the credit markets. Instead Chesapeake Energy is reportedly considering a 1.5 lien exchange with its existing bondholders to address its upcoming maturities. The difference between the two companies boils down to the fact that ConocoPhillips holds a solid investment grade credit rating, while Chesapeake Energy's credit is junk rated.

Now what: While the price of crude vastly improved last month, ConocoPhillips continues to prepare for a future where oil stays lower for a lot longer. That has the company well positioned to survive if conditions do grow worse, while thriving if they improve.

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