Top Oil & Gas Stock Picks for 2012 (XOM, CVX, COP, RRC, TSO, PXD, APC, CHK, APA, OXY)

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Crude oil prices have risen this year, although they have been tapering off in the past couple of months. Pump prices have been driven by the price differential between Brent crude and WTI crude, and integrated oil companies that could take advantage of the differential made substantial margins on refining WTI crude and selling the products as if higher priced Brent were the refineries’ feedstock. The differential reached more than $25/barrel earlier this year, but has fallen back to about $8-$9/barrel currently.

The fortunes of any oil & gas producer depends on the price of the commodity, and crude prices in the US have been rising, while natural gas prices have been no better than flat for the year. And while crude prices could rise to an average of more than $105/barrel in 2012, natural gas prices are not expected to rise much next year as abundant supplies are likely to increase even more.

We’ve looked at several oil & gas companies, including the three US-based supermajors and a number of independents with market caps above $10 billion: Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM), Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX), ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP), Range Resources Inc. (NYSE: RRC), Tesoro Corp. (NYSE: TSO), Pioneer Natural Resources Co. (NYSE: PXD); Anadarko Petroleum Co. (NYSE: APC), Chesapeake Energy Corp. (NYSE: CHK), Apache Corp. (NYSE: APA), and Occidental Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: OXY). We’ve looked at the past year’s stock price performance and compared that with median target prices as reported by Thomson Reuters in an effort to find the stocks we think will be top performers in 2012.

Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE: XOM) has a median price target of $92 and a current price of around $84.62, for a potential upside of 8.7%. That’s the lowest potential gain of any of the stocks in this survey, but combined with a share price gain of about 15% in the past 12 months and a dividend yield of 2.3%, Exxon’s upside is stronger than the simple calculation. The stock’s 52-week trading range is $67.03-$88.23, so the stock is trading within about 5% of its 52-week high. Crude oil price hikes provide substantial benefits to Exxon’s shares, and those price hikes could add $10-$20/barrel to the company’s revenues in the coming year.

Chevron Corp. (NYSE: CVX) has a median price target of $122.50 and a current price of around $106.76, for a potential upside of 14.7%. Of the three supermajors, Chevron’s potential gain is the largest, it’s share price gain of nearly 16.5% in the past year is the largest, and its dividend yield of 3% is second in among the three giants. The stock’s 52-week trading range is $86.68-$110.01. Chevron has been the strongest bet among the three US supermajors this past year, and there’s little reason to expect that to change in 2012. A new 52-week high is close, and current events in the Middle East could push shares to a new high before the new year.

ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP) has a median price target of $82 and a current price around $72.24, for a potential upside of about 13.5%. Conoco trails the other two supermajors in share price gain for the past 12 months, posting a rise of just 6.35%. The company’s dividend yield is highest of the supers, at 3.7%. The stock’s 52-week trading range is $58.65-$81.80. Conoco just sold assets in the North Sea for $330 million as it continues to try to bring its debt back under control. Of the three supermajors, this is the least likely to achieve its potential upside.

Range Resources Inc. (NYSE: RRC) has a median price target of $77.50 and a current price around $61.55, for a potential upside of 26%. But Range’s share price has jumped more than 36% in the past year, but the company pays a paltry dividend yield of just 0.3%. The stock’s 52-week trading range is $44.20-$77.24. With a market cap of right around $10 billion, Range is often mentioned as a takeover target from one of the supers or another mining company that wants to diversify into energy. Range holds about 800,000 leased acres in the Marcellus shale play, which is located close to the massive northeast US market.

Tesoro Corp. (NYSE: TSO) has a median price target of $28 and a current price around $23, for a potential upside of about 22%. The refiner’s share price has gained more than 25% this year, but the company pays no dividend. The stock’s 52-week trading range is $17.43-$29.61. Unlike the other major US refiner, Valero Energy Corp. (NYSE: VLO), Tesoro has made no major acquisitions recently, apparently satisfied to play the hand it’s got. That’s probably smart, considering Valero shares got whacked in the past 12 months, down more than -9%. But as the Brent/WTI differential closes, no refining stock is a good bet for 2012, regardless of the potential upside calculation.

Pioneer Natural Resources Co. (NYSE: PXD) has a median price target of $115 and a current price around $75.75, for a potential upside of 31.4%. The company’s shares gained a meager 2.2% in the past 12 months and the dividend yield is just 0.1%. The stock’s 52-week trading range is $58.63-$106.07. Like Range Resources, Pioneer carries a market cap of right around $10 billion. Most of the company’s assets are in Texas, and most are oil. Either as a takeover target or as a liquids producer, Pioneer is a solid play.

Anadarko Petroleum Co. (NYSE: APC) has a median target price of $100 and a current price of $75.75, for a potential upside of 32%. The share price gained more than 9% in the past year and the company pays a dividend yield of just 0.5%. The stock’s 52-week trading range is $57.11-$85.50. Until fairly recently, Anadarko’s assets have been exclusively onshore in the US, but its acquisition of Kerr-McGee gave it a position in the Gulf of Mexico and the company has also acquired assets offshore of Africa. The potential upside here, combined with the company’s share price performance last year, make Anadarko a solid prospect for gains in 2012.

Chesapeake Energy Corp. (NYSE: CHK) has a median target price of $35.50 and a current price around $22.87, for a potential upside of 55%. Shares have lost more than -11% in the past 12 months and the company pays a dividend yield of 1.5%. The stock’s 52-week trading range is $22-$35.95. Chesapeake’s shares are near the 52-week low today following a report from Reuters on how the company used shell companies to secure leases to drilling rights in Michigan and potential lawsuits springing from the practice. On the other side, at least one analyst thinks Chesapeake offers a “compelling risk/reward” opportunity. That awe-inspiring upside potential is probably out of reach though. Chesapeake holds a lot of debt, and any hiccup in the financial markets could raise havoc with the company.

Apache Corp. (NYSE: APA) has a median price target of $134 and a current price of $88.63, for a potential upside of 51.2%. The company’s share price has fallen more than -25% in the past year and it pays a dividend yield of 0.7%. The stock’s 52-week trading range is $73.04-$134.13. Several directors and company officers have been buying shares in the past month or so. Just under half of the company’s liquids production comes from its US assets, so the rising prices for WTI are positives for Apache. The large potential upside is probably not going to be closed, but the company’s shares could easily improve by 25% in 2012.

Occidental Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: OXY) has a median price target of $117.50 and a current price around $93.69, for a potential upside of 25.4%. The company’s share price has fallen more than -4% in the past 12 months and it pays a dividend yield of 2%. The stock’s 52-week trading range is $66.36-$117.89. Oxy’s assets include liquids-rich fields in southern California, where pricing for crude and liquids is higher than anywhere else in the country. Other assets in Texas and elsewhere onshore in the US will drive revenue and profit at Oxy this year, and the stock’s potential upside is not an impossible goal.

Overall, among these oil & gas stocks, Chevron would be the pick among the supermajors, and either Range Resources or Pioneer among the independents, primarily on the possibility of a takeover. Refiners face a tough 2012 and Conoco’s decision to split off its refining into a separate company won’t help matters.

Paul Ausick

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