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Shale plays have been leading independent energy stocks higher since summer and the industry may be ready to accelerate in the first quarter.

Over the past ten years, The S&P energy ETF (NYSEARCA:XLE) has gained eight times, according to data from the Seasonal Investor database. The basket has returned an average and median 5.38% and 5.57% in Q1, respectively. That outpaces the S&P 500, which has posted an average and median 1.93% and 3.34% in the period, respectively.

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The four best Q1 performers

Across independent oil and gas companies, four have robust seasonality. Each has outpaced the broad market index significantly in the quarter and all four have gained in nine of the past ten years.

The first is Denbury Resources (NYSE:DNR). Q1 will be a first for Denbury. In a nod to the company's confidence in its future cash flow, Denbury announced in November it will pay a $0.25 per year dividend to shareholders for the first time this year. The company expects to increase this dividend to $0.50-$0.60 per share in 2015. Denbury also boosted its buyback authorization in November to $250 million from $109 million. The company has repurchased 43 million shares, or 11% of its shares outstanding, since 2011. The funding for these programs comes from using enhanced oil recovery methods to boost production a compounded 29% a year from 1999 through 2012. 95% of Denbury's production is crude oil and a significant portion of that production comes from using next generation recovery methods on existing fields that have been depleted using prior generation recovery methods. That strategy has resulted in oil production of more than 71,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day. The approach also provides better-than-peer operating margin that should help protect shares if U.S. oil production growth outstrips demand, pressuring WTI lower. That's probably the biggest risk to these independents over the coming two years.

The second strong performer is Noble Energy (NYSE:NBL), a company investing $10 billion over the next five years to boost production across its 640,000 acres in the Niobrara Basin. The company plans to spend 70% of its capital budget this year onshore and the remainder will be spent on deepwater projects. Overall, Noble is guiding for production growth of roughly 18% this year. Noble's production grew 26% in 2012 thanks to higher production in Colorado and capital spending in that play is expected to drive Noble's production 17% higher per year through 2017. If that plays out as hoped, Noble's production will double to 540,000 barrels of oil equivalent. Currently, about half of Noble's production is natural gas, including production both in the U.S. and internationally. That gives Noble a bit of insulation to any downside in WTI prices this year.

Over at Pioneer (NYSE:PXD), the company is most active in its Spraberry and Eagle Ford acreage. Pioneer believes Spraberry may be the second largest field on the planet. If so, Pioneer is perfectly positioned with 900,000 acres across Spraberry and Wolfcamp. That acreage and a robust investment program make Pioneer the biggest operator in terms of production in the play, with estimated daily production more than double its closest competitor Apache. The stacked nature of the play provides leverage for long-term production growth, including 13% to 18% compounded production growth through 2015, and better than peer margin.

And the final of the four is Cimarex Energy (NYSE:XEC). Just about 70% of Cimarex's reserves are natural gas and natural gas liquids. Production in Q3 grew 13% from a year ago thanks to 28% growth from the company's Permian Basin oil acreage. Cimarex has built an 180,000 acre position over the border in New Mexico in the Delaware Basin. But, while the majority of its capital budget is focused on Wolfcamp in the Permian, it's also spending to boost production in its midcontinent assets. Production from that acreage climbed from 81 MMcfe/day in 2010 to 221 MMcfe/day through September. Cimarex has cut its well costs from $7 million to $6.5 million in the play this year, helping support profits.

Across all four of these independents, the ability to execute programs in prolific plays is key to maximizing return, particularly if crude prices stumble. But a cold winter should help provide some price support through the seasonally strong first quarter and if so, then these four companies may make sense for portfolios over the next few months.

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Source: Seasonal Investor Database

Source: The Best Oil And Gas Independents To Own In Q1