It's getting slippery in the oil patch — and it could get worse. With energy firms in the Standard & Poor's 500 down about 40...

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It’s getting slippery in the oil patch — and it could get worse.

With energy firms in the Standard & Poor’s 500 down about 40 percent this year, many seem on sale. Big refiner Valero, for instance, fell 70 percent in 2008.

But one problem is that even if oil prices are at or near their lows, history shows they can stay there for a while, even years, leading to tougher times for energy companies.

“Unless we see some solid economic news, we could be entering an era of lower oil prices for some time to come,” says Phil Flynn, analyst at Alaron Trading.

He believes crude prices could find a floor at $35 a barrel, but he sees potential for prices to fall to $25 if the economy worsens.

Morningstar’s Eric Chenoweth says the bigger worry with energy companies is their difficulty borrowing. Many have become accustomed to tapping very cheap debt, he says. “It’s going to challenge their ability to grow.”

Experts say the safest energy bets are the companies with strong cash reserves and low levels of debt, or those that have hedged effectively against lower energy prices. These factors may enable them to grow their businesses in the face of falling commodity prices.

Here are four companies that Chenowith says fit the bill and are getting high marks from analysts: