Coming off four straight years of record earnings, Chevron cashed in on soaring oil prices to begin 2008 with the most profitable first...

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SAN RAMON, Calif. — Coming off four straight years of record earnings, Chevron cashed in on soaring oil prices to begin 2008 with the most profitable first quarter in its history.

Chevron said today that it earned $5.17 billion, or $2.48 a share, during the first three months of the year, up 10 percent from $4.72 billion, or $2.18 a share, a year earlier.

The performance topped the average earnings estimate of $2.41 a share among analysts polled by Thomson Financial.

But revenue of $65.95 billion fell well below analysts’ forecast of $75.64 billion. Nevertheless, Chevron’s revenue still surged 37 percent from last year’s $48.23 billion.

Chevron’s profit gains were more impressive than the reported number indicated because last year’s results were boosted $700 million by a one time-gain.

If not for last year’s windfall and unfavorable foreign-exchange rates that trimmed 3 cents a share from this year’s earnings, Chevron’s first-quarter profit would have been up by 31 percent, Citigroup analyst Doug Leggate estimated in a research note issued today.

Chevron shares rose 52 cents to $95.46 in midafternoon trading.

Like its peers, Chevron is thriving because crude oil prices have climbed to record levels, recently flirting with $120 a barrel — almost twice as much as a year ago.

The trend has exasperated consumers who are cutting corners just to fill up their gas tanks and prompting a wide range of businesses to raise their prices, further straining the distressed U.S. economy.

But Chevron, the second-largest U.S. oil company, made relatively little money at the gas pump, where prices have surpassed $4 a gallon in some parts of the country.

The division that refines and sells gasoline earned $252 million during the first quarter, plunging 84 percent from $1.6 billion at the same time last year. Chevron blamed the sharp downturn on its inability to raise fuel prices as quickly as oil costs were rising.

But Chevron more than made up for that shortcoming in its oil fields.

In the United States, Chevron pocketed an average of $87 a barrel for crude oil and natural gas liquids sold in the first quarter, more than doubling from $37 a barrel last year.

The situation was basically the same in the rest of the world, with Chevron collecting an average of $86 a barrel compared with $35 a barrel last year.

Chevron probably would have made even more money in the quarter if its oil production hadn’t slipped by about 44,000 barrels a day from last year. The company’s production averaged 2.6 million barrels of oil a day.

Associated Press business reporter Adam Schreck in New York contributed to this story.