It has been a wild ride for big oil over the course of the past year, with the price of crude nearly hitting $150 a barrel last summer before falling off of a cliff. Now, with the price of crude back over $80 a barrel, investors who are long oil plays are starting to get excited. The United States Oil Fund (NYSE:USO), an ETF that tracks the price of crude, has nearly doubled since bottoming out in February. The coming days will let us know how these price movements have impacted big oil.

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Not Holding Back
When the oil and gas company Apache (NYSE:APA) reports its Q3 earnings on Thursday, analysts are expecting EPS to be cut in half when compared to a year ago and revenue is projected to fall by 33.5%. Even with comparable results of this nature, investors are betting that better times are ahead for the oil and gas industry. Shares of Apache are near a 52-week high and are up 34% year-to-date.

In Q2, Apache's mood was not dampened by lower oil and natural gas prices. The company checked in with a quarter of record production and was optimistic going forward given drilling successes in Egypt and the Gulf of Mexico. Apache also realized an average of price per barrel of oil of $58.15, up 37% from Q1. Natural gas prices continued to falter however.

An Unwavering Investment Approach
The integrated oil powerhouse Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) will be in the same boat as Apache when it too reports its quarterly results on Thursday. The consensus is that EPS will drop by 59% on a 42% slide in revenue on a year-over-year basis. Exxon's stock price has generally proven to be less volatile than the price of oil in recent months and the stock currently carries a dividend yield of 2.3%.

In Q2, the company's EPS fell by 63.5% on a 46% drop off in total revenue and other income when compared to the prior year. Exxon management acknowledged a difficult operating environment, but is looking to the future as it continued its capital investment program at near record levels. Another positive development for shareholders recently was the company inking a long term liquefied natural gas supply agreement with PetroChina (NYSE:PTR) in August in hopes of cashing in on China's growing energy demands.

Universal Appeal
Analysts are looking for Chevron (NYSE:CVX) to post an EPS decline of 62% on a 40% decline in revenue when the company announces its Q3 results on Thursday. Despite the fact that the stock is approaching its 52-week high from last December, the stock may still appeal to value and income investors with its 10-times forward P/E ratio and its 3.5% dividend yield.

The trend at Chevron during Q2 was very similar to what is expected from its Q3. EPS fell 70% on a 52% year-over-year decrease in Q2 total revenue and other income. The company's downstream refinery business and its chemicals segment were bright spots in an otherwise gloomy quarter. Both divisions were profitable and experienced significant improvements over the company's Q2 in 2008.

The Bottom Line
It should come of little surprise that revenue and earnings for big oil will be down sharply this quarter, when compared to a year ago. Although the prices of crude and natural gas have begun to recover, they are only a fraction of their levels from a year ago. Despite these expectations for Q3, investors are generally bullish on these stocks as indicated by their steady upward movement since the beginning of this year. (For more, see our Oil And Gas Industry Primer.)

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