© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The sun is seen behind a crude oil pump jack in the Permian Basin in Loving County, Texas, U.S., November 22, 2019. REUTERS/Angus Mordant

By Ruhi Soni and Liz Hampton

(Reuters) -Top U.S. shale producers on Wednesday reported blockbuster first-quarter profits and most poured cash into higher dividends and share buybacks as oil prices churned along at the highest levels in years.

Pioneer Natural Resources (NYSE:) posted a five-fold jump in first-quarter profit and raised its dividend, while earnings at Continental Resources (NYSE:) more than tripled. Shale-gas producer Chesapeake Energy (NYSE:) initiated a $1 billion share repurchase program after raising its free cash flow outlook.

Producers were prioritizing shareholder returns over new spending on production even as Western sanctions on Russia sent crude prices to 14-year-highs during the quarter. Investors had demanded better returns after years of capital spending turned shale into a Wall Street pariah.

Pioneer declared it would pay $7.38 per share in dividends, up from $3.78 last quarter. Shares jumped 6.7% in after-hours trading to $269.85 each.

It posted an adjusted quarterly profit of $1.98 billion, or $7.74 per share, up from $396 million, or $1.77 per share, a year earlier. Analysts had anticipated earnings of $7 per share.

Continental’s adjusted profit was $960 million, or $2.65 per share, up from $278.9 million, or 77 cents per share, a year earlier. The company has raised its forecast for full-year production to between 200,000 and 210,000 barrels per day, from 195,000 bpd to 205,000 bpd.

Chesapeake increased its 2022 adjusted EBITDAX guidance, a measure that excludes exploration costs, to $4.6 billion to $4.8 billion, from $3.8 billion to $4 billion.

Shares of Chesapeake were up a little over 1% after hours to $96.

Last week, Pioneer said its first-quarter oil production averaged 355,000 bpd, up from 281,000 bpd a year earlier.

On Wednesday, Oil producer APA Corp said it would raise capital spending 8% this year to $1.725 billion due to an increase in non-operated U.S. activity and increased drilling in Suriname.

This week, Devon Energy (NYSE:), Diamondback (NASDAQ:) Energy and Coterra Energy boosted shareholder payouts after posting better-than-expected profit.

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