Pumped up by persistently high energy prices, the oil industry maintained its streak of massive — and growing — quarterly profits...

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SAN FRANCISCO — Pumped up by persistently high energy prices, the oil industry maintained its streak of massive — and growing — quarterly profits this week, aggravating motorists and amazing financial analysts.

“I have been following this industry for 18 years, and I have never seen anything like this,” Oppenheimer analyst Fadel Gheit said yesterday. “It’s like they’re printing money.”

The results of the world’s four largest oil companies illustrate how well the industry has fared lately. Since the end of 2003, Royal Dutch/Shell, BP, ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco have earned a combined $97 billion, including $23 billion during the first three months this year.

Although crude-oil future prices retreated below the important psychological threshold of $50 a barrel yesterday, Gheit and other industry analysts expect the industry boom to continue, largely because the demand for energy is expected to grow faster than the supply.

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“As far as you can look out, things look pretty rosy for [oil] refiners,” said Tom Kloza, chief energy analyst for the Oil Price Information Service in Wall, N.J.

The bottom line for consumers: U.S. gasoline prices seem likely to stay above $2 a gallon through summer, traditionally when more drivers are hitting the road for vacations and burning up more fuel.

That’s unwelcome news for motorists such as Henry Shin, who has been cutting corners so he can afford to fill up his sport-utility vehicle at $50 a tankful.

“It bugs me big time,” said Shin, 19, a college student. . “I feel like all my money is going straight into the gasoline tank.”

Gasoline prices have climbed higher since the oil industry closed the books on its first quarter, reaching a national average of $2.28 a gallon for unleaded regular grade earlier this month, according to the daily surveys of the AAA.

The national average stood at $2.24 a gallon yesterday, a 24 percent increase from $1.81 at the same time last year, the travel association said. In California and Hawaii, motorists are paying more than $2.50 a gallon.

Those prices threaten to cause a backlash against the oil industry because of its “Caligulalike” profits, Kloza said, referring to the decadent reign of a famous Roman emperor.

“It really causes people’s blood pressure to rise when they see gas prices going up like they have,” Kloza said.

Although the numbers are large, the oil industry’s profit margin — the amount of money pocketed from each sale — isn’t huge.

In the first quarter, the oil and natural-gas industry’s profit margin averaged 8.5 percent, according to figures compiled by the American Petroleum Institute. The average profit margin for all industries so far is 9.2 percent, according to Business Week’s calculations. The figure for all industries is expected to decline as more companies report first-quarter earnings during the next few weeks.

Last year, the profit margin for the oil and natural-gas industry averaged 7 percent, slightly below the 7.2 percent average for all industries. Computer software and services had the highest profit margin at 15.6 percent.

“We understand consumers are concerned about gasoline prices, but those are largely a function of the marketplace,” said David Fogarty, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry trade group.

A sharp increase in crude-oil prices is the main reason motorists are paying more at the pump.

Analysts also blame an inadequate supply of U.S. oil refineries to quench the country’s intensifying thirst for gasoline and heating oil, a problem that’s exacerbated whenever a plant curtails production for routine maintenance or unforeseen circumstances.

President Bush this week suggested building more oil refineries on closed military bases to help increase future production.

Even as the oil industry announced its hefty profits, this week offered motorists some hope for modest price relief at the pumps.

Oil prices fell during the past week after Saudi Arabia pledged to increase oil production and a government report of slower U.S. economic growth, a phenomenon that often foreshadows a drop in energy demand.

This week’s shift convinced some industry observers that oil prices won’t go higher than they were earlier this month, when they soared past $57 a barrel. “We have broken the back of this bullish market,” said Peter Beutel, president of Cameron Hanover, an oil-trading advisory firm in New Canaan, Conn.

Several major oil companies seemed to be preparing for a possible price reversal. ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and Royal Dutch/Shell curbed first-quarter oil production by a combined 474,000 barrels a day, according to the companies. The downturn offset a 500,000-barrel-a-day production increase by Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC.

That trend “could be problematic” because the global-oil-supply cushion is thin, said Refco Group energy analyst Marshall Steeves. He expects oil prices to range between $45 and $58 a barrel the rest of the year.

If oil prices stay down, gasoline prices are expected to follow. As a rule of thumb, every $1-a-barrel drop in oil prices lowers gasoline prices by about 2.5 cents a gallon.

But that ripple effect isn’t always immediate. “Gas prices tend to go up like a rocket and come down like a feather,” said Rob Schlichting, a spokesman for the California Energy Commission.