NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- During the last energy decade, the booming 1970s, investors could simply pick up international oil companies like Exxon (now Exxon-Mobil (XOM) - Get Report ) or Chevron (CVX) - Get Report (which now owns Texaco), the American partners of what is now Saudi Aramco and walk away with big returns.
It's not that simple these days. Today's boom is not only American, but it belongs to dedicated exploration companies, not the oil majors. Fracking is very expensive, meaning price swings can wipe out profits. You have to pay attention to infrastructure. But the gains can, if anything, be sweeter.
The easiest way to play has been to stick with the oilfield service giants, the "arms merchants" for the fracking revolution. Over the last five years shares of Baker Hughes (BHI) are up 79%, Schlumberger (SLB) - Get Report shares are up more than 105%, and Halliburton (HAL) - Get Report has seen a 175% gain.
Schlumberger's numbers would do any tech CEO proud. Revenues from 2010 to 2013 are up 78% and profits have grown in-line with that revenue. Last year the company brought 14.4% of revenue, $6.732 billion, $1.21 per share, to the net income line.
But what if you want to play the oil itself? In that case you need to know your plays, and who leads in each one. Fortunately the Energy Information Agency EIA keeps monthly tabs on the numbers, and a little more research will reveal the leaders:
The largest play right now is the Permian in West Texas. It was producing 1.68 million barrels per day this month, and that should grow by another 38,000 barrels/day next month. The biggest production is coming out of the so-called Spraberry area where the biggest producer is Pioneer Natural Resources (PXD) - Get Report , operating more than 7,000 wells.
The second play is Eagle Ford, a crescent-shaped formation running from west and south of San Antonio all the way to Dallas. It produced 1.479 million barrels/day this month and should deliver 31,000 more per day next month. The biggest player here is EOG Resources (EOG) - Get Report with plans to drill 520 wells there this year alone.
The third major oil play is the Bakken, in western North Dakota, a formation that extends into Canada, Montana and South Dakota and has turned Williston into the 21st century's most vivid oil boom town. Some 1.116 million barrels of oil came out of the Bakken each day this month, with another 20,000/day due next month. The largest player here is Whiting Petroleum (WLL) - Get Report , following its purchase of Kodiak Oil and Gas.
In the last five years Pioneer shares surged 562%, those of Whiting are up 283% and those of EOG are up 183%. But in the last year Whiting has shown the strongest gains, nearly 76%, against a gain of 38% for EOG and 20% for Pioneer.
The reason is that surprises happen. New fields, new formations, and new wells can send production stocks soaring, but the reverse will also prove true. Fracked wells play out or "deplete" more quickly than old-style vertical wells, and the rate can be unpredictable. Experts disagree on how long these plays, and other fracking plays that mainly contain gas with names like Marcellus, Haynesville and the Utica shale will run. Oil companies are also looking at new formations like the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale, which extends into Mississippi, and the Antrim, which covers most of Michigan.
All this means that you can indeed get rich in oil from behind your PC screen, but it will pay to pay attention, and be prepared to trade based on news, even rumors of news. It's a wildcatting decade, so pull on your big boots and take a look at the modern oilpatch. You may be richly rewarded.
TheStreet Ratings team rates WHITING PETROLEUM CORP as a Buy with a ratings score of A. TheStreet Ratings Team has this to say about their recommendation:
"We rate WHITING PETROLEUM CORP (WLL) a BUY. This is based on the convergence of positive investment measures, which should help this stock outperform the majority of stocks that we rate. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its robust revenue growth, expanding profit margins, solid stock price performance, growth in earnings per share and increase in net income. We feel these strengths outweigh the fact that the company has had somewhat disappointing return on equity."
Highlights from the analysis by TheStreet Ratings Team goes as follows:
- The revenue growth came in higher than the industry average of 2.6%. Since the same quarter one year prior, revenues rose by 26.4%. Growth in the company's revenue appears to have helped boost the earnings per share.
- The gross profit margin for WHITING PETROLEUM CORP is currently very high, coming in at 77.53%. It has increased from the same quarter the previous year. Along with this, the net profit margin of 18.17% significantly outperformed against the industry average.
- Investors have apparently begun to recognize positive factors similar to those we have mentioned in this report, including earnings growth. This has helped drive up the company's shares by a sharp 64.92% over the past year, a rise that has exceeded that of the S&P 500 Index. Looking ahead, the stock's sharp rise over the last year has already helped drive it to a level which is relatively expensive compared to the rest of its industry. We feel, however, that other strengths this company displays justify these higher price levels.
- WHITING PETROLEUM CORP has improved earnings per share by 10.5% in the most recent quarter compared to the same quarter a year ago. This company has reported somewhat volatile earnings recently. But, we feel it is poised for EPS growth in the coming year. During the past fiscal year, WHITING PETROLEUM CORP reported lower earnings of $3.07 versus $3.49 in the prior year. This year, the market expects an improvement in earnings ($5.28 versus $3.07).
- The net income growth from the same quarter one year ago has exceeded that of the S&P 500, but is less than that of the Oil, Gas & Consumable Fuels industry average. The net income increased by 12.2% when compared to the same quarter one year prior, going from $134.96 million to $151.44 million.
- You can view the full analysis from the report here: WLL Ratings Report
At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned. This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.