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High fuel prices are windfall for Big Oil

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When oil prices spiked — and oil profits soared — 26 years ago, virtually every newspaper intern in America (including me) was dispatched to gasoline stations to collect quotes from irate motorists. Big Oil was viewed as public enemy No. 1: Congress convened hearings to skewer oil industry execs, regulatory agencies investigated pricing, and some news organizations rented helicopters to scour the waters (in vain) for signs of oil tankers floating offshore just waiting for prices to climb higher.

In recent months, oil company profits have soared again as international crude oil prices hit new highs. Yet public reaction has been more muted. And that has probably emboldened Congress — which, instead of investigating oil companies, just handed them (by various estimates) anywhere from $1.4 billion to $4 billion in tax breaks in the new energy bill.

Isn't there something wrong when firms profit so richly from the misfortune of the U.S. economy and American consumers?

There's no question that the drain on the average American's pocketbook has been a gusher for the big oil companies. Just look at the financial statements issued at the end of July. Exxon Mobil Corp.'s second quarter earnings climbed 35 percent from the second quarter of 2004 (after excluding special items) to $7.64 billion. BP PLC, the world's second-largest publicly traded oil company, said its net income increased 29 percent, to $5.59 billion. At Royal Dutch Shell PLC, second-quarter profits rose 34 percent to $5.24 billion. ConocoPhillips, the third-largest U.S. oil company, reported an eye-popping 51 percent jump in earnings, to $3.14 billion.

What's behind those numbers? When oil prices rise, petroleum companies that have long-term contracts or own oil reserves get a huge windfall. After all, they may have invested and developed those oil fields when prices were anywhere from $10 to $25 a barrel. Suddenly prices spurt upward and the companies are awash in profits.

Prices for North Sea Brent crude oil averaged $51.63 a barrel in the second quarter of this year, 46 percent more than the $35.32-a-barrel average a year earlier, BP told investors last month. In the United States, crude oil prices have been running about five times as high as 1998 levels, according to Energy Department statistics.

OK, but what about the companies that refine crude oil and market gasoline? If their raw material (oil) costs more, shouldn't that squeeze their earnings? That's often the case, but not this year. Americans haven't really altered their driving habits, and that has made it easier for firms to raise pump prices for consumers without worrying about losing business.

Exxon Mobil's second-quarter earnings show how these dynamics work. More than half of the company's profit surge came from bigger earnings on the 2.5 million barrels a day of oil and 8.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas that Exxon Mobil produces itself, the so-called upstream earnings. More surprising was Exxon Mobil's ability to pass along those increases to consumers. Exxon Mobil (like other oil companies) was actually able to boost margins for what the industry calls "downstream" operations of retailing and refining. Profits in those operations, after excluding a special charge for the settlement of a lawsuit, were $2.2 billion, up 47 percent from 2004, even though the amount of petroleum products the company sold rose less than 3 percent.

Just how big is a company like Exxon Mobil? Its sales in the second quarter were $88.6 billion, a rate that would make its revenues larger than the gross domestic product of all but 18 or so countries — and a bit bigger than Wal-Mart's sales. Exxon Mobil's profits for the quarter were about 50 percent more than Citigroup's and 2 1/2 times Microsoft's.

The sign of a great company? Money to spend finding energy solutions? Not necessarily. Exxon Mobil upped its capital and exploration budget last quarter, but it spent nearly as much buying back its own shares, bolstering its stock price. This quarter, the company said, it will spend even more — $5 billion — repurchasing shares. If only drivers could fill their tanks with stock certificates.

Steven Mufson is deputy editor of The Washington Post's Outlook section.