Historic oil prices and $3-a-gallon gasoline have been contributing to fears of a recession, but they've yet to cause the hue and cry that...

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HOUSTON — Historic oil prices and $3-a-gallon gasoline have been contributing to fears of a recession, but they’ve yet to cause the hue and cry that some might expect. Americans may simply be growing more accustomed to high fuel costs, analysts say.

All that may change beginning Friday, when oilfield-services giant Schlumberger kicks off earnings season for the oil sector. Companies may not post record profits, but certainly may report big enough earnings to raise some eyebrows.

Given the weakening economy and prospects of $4-a-gallon gasoline, hefty oil profits are almost sure to renew debate over whether Big Oil is profiting at the expense of most Americans.

“This wouldn’t matter if we were talking about shoes,” said Judy Dugan, research director at the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, which advocates more government oversight of the industry.

“But oil is like water. It’s a necessity,” she said. “And [oil producers] don’t want to give up these profits even though they know what it’s doing to the economy.”

In 2005, when the price for a gallon of gas first hit $3, top oil executives were hauled before federal lawmakers to explain profits and assure customers they weren’t being gouged.

Whether similar grillings or protestations take place this year could hinge on what occurs in the next couple of weeks, when oil majors such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips report fourth-quarter and 2007 earnings in the wake of $100-a-barrel oil.

Already, Chevron, the second-largest U.S. oil company, has predicted it will earn a bigger profit in the fourth quarter than it did in the third, when it earned $3.72 billion, because of higher energy prices. Last February, Chevron reported its third consecutive year of record profits: $17.1 billion for 2006.

ConocoPhillips, meanwhile, has said it produced more oil in the final three months of 2007 than in the third quarter, but likely made less money refining it into gasoline and other products.

Refining margins, which hurt many oil companies’ earnings in the third quarter, are the difference between what refiners pay for oil and what they are paid for the products they make from it. Those margins have been squeezed as spiking oil prices outpaced increases in gasoline prices and other refined products.

Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest publicly traded oil company, has offered no guidance on its upcoming report, expected Feb. 1. But Wall Street analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial predict the company to top its year-ago result and post quarterly revenue of $112.7 billion, a 25 percent jump from the fourth quarter of 2006.

Exxon Mobil’s $39.5 billion profit for all of 2006 was the largest annual profit by a U.S. company.

John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s top trade group, acknowledged the staggering profits in recent years but said some of the criticism has come from people who simply don’t understand how oil markets operate.

Felmy said it’s important to note that oil companies invest large portions of their profits back into the business.

ConocoPhillips, for example, earned $15.5 billion in 2006, its best-ever result. This year, it says, its capital-spending budget is forecast to be $15.3 billion.

While Exxon Mobil often grabs headlines for its enormous earnings, most people don’t realize it produces only 3 percent of the world’s oil, Felmy and others note. National oil companies, like those in Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, control almost 90 percent of global oil reserves.

“Exxon, frankly, is pretty small potatoes in the world oil market,” said John Moroney, a Texas A&M economics professor who just finished a book on energy production and consumption. “It’s a huge company, but that doesn’t mean it has a stranglehold on oil prices.”

But the public still remembers that Exxon in 2005 set a U.S. profit record of $10.71 billion for the fourth quarter and made $36.13 billion for the year.

And the following April, Exxon stunned the public by giving its chairman, Lee Raymond, a $400 million retirement package — one of the largest in history.

Dugan said one way to help keep prices in check is greater regulation of energy trading markets, but congressional efforts to do so have been blocked by the industry’s powerful lobby.

Many analysts believe speculative investors played a major role in driving oil prices over $100 earlier this month. The falling dollar fueled the speculative frenzy because crude futures offer a hedge against a weak dollar, and oil futures bought and sold in dollars are more attractive to foreign investors when the greenback is falling.