Anyone who drives is well aware of the general trajectory of oil prices over the past decade; and likewise, anyone who uses natural gas to heat their home has some sense of the volatility in that market. Oil and natural gas are vital to the global economy. Simply put, without energy there is much less commerce, and oil and natural gas represent some of the most portable energy-dense options available today.

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When it comes to big-time oil and gas, investors must consider a lot of trade-offs. Some companies see themselves almost as trusts - focusing on paying out large dividends and keeping risky development investment to a minimum. Others try to find more balance in the growth/income equation. At the bottom line, though, major oil and gas companies offer investors an opportunity to ride along for further gains in energy prices, without some of the risk of smaller names.

Producing oil and gas carries certain risks, and accidents are almost inevitable. Nevertheless, BP is the current "most hated" oil company in the world (or at least in the U.S.) for its role in the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Though there is still a good chance that BP will pay billions more in settlements, claims, fines and costs, shareholders can still find a relative bargain in these shares. BP has a reasonably good reserve position, but trouble in its Russia operations do put a cloud over its efforts to expand future production. The company still offers a dividend yield in excess of 4%, however.

Chevron (NYSE:CVX)
As the second-largest oil company in the United States, Chevron not only has a sizable reserve position (over 10 billion barrels of oil equivalent), but its 62% weighting toward oil is especially favorable today. Chevron has not been quite as active as its peers in onshore U.S. acquisitions, but it has had good exploration results in areas like offshore Thailand and West Africa. Chevron is also making a large bet on the future of liquid natural gas (LNG), as it is involved in several major projects around the world. Chevron's dividend yield is on the lower end of the scale at 3.2%.

ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP)
ConocoPhillips has been an active company in recent years - acquiring a major U.S. gas producer, a stake in a major Russian energy company and an Australian gas producer. It also looks as though the company is not done yet, as management has targeted certain under-performing assets for future disposition. Although Conoco has been working to increase its natural gas assets, over 55% of the reserve base is still oil. Conoco has large refinery operations in the United States (an increasingly mixed blessing within the sector) and pays a dividend yield of 4% currently.

Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM)
Exxon is a gargantuan company with nearly 25 billion barrels of oil equivalent in reserves. Over the years, Exxon has built a reputation as a savvy capital allocator, an efficient operator and a company with an eye for quality in acquiring assets. Much of that seems to be playing out right now. The acquisition of XTO Energy is boosting current production, the company's refinery capex cycle seems to be under better control than at rivals, and the company remains a go-to partner of choice when large government-owned energy companies feel they need a partner. Exxon's dividend yield is a little low at present, but investors should expect relatively better growth in payout here versus the sector.

Total (NYSE:TOT)
Many Americans may fume at how France pursues its international relations, but U.S. shareholders can reap some of the benefits of that through Total. Because France is perceived differently than the U.S. or U.K. in some regions, Total has access to business opportunities that companies like BP or Exxon do not. Total also happens to be one of the largest players (among major oil companies) in oil sand projects. In addition, Total has been aggressive in pursuing renewable energy ventures (acquiring the majority of SunPower (Nasdaq:SPWRA), for instance, and it has a relatively low exposure to refining and marketing. Like Exxon, Total's dividend yield is on the low end of the range.

Other Names to Consider
Hess (NYSE:HES) is arguably too small to belong on this list, but investors may nevertheless be interested in its large (73% of reserves) exposure to oil, its favorable acreage position in the growing Bakken shale, and its numerous development projects around the world. Those interested in LNG should also consider Royal Dutch Shell (NYSE:RDS.A, RDS.B), one of the largest players in the emerging market. Last and by no means least, while Petrobras (NYSE:PBR) shares are clouded with worries about government interference, rising operating costs and iffy profitability in refining and marketing, the company has a favored position in some of the largest offshore oil discoveries in recent memory and a huge oil reserve base. (For additional reading, see A Guide To Investing In Oil Markets.)

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