Big Oil's money machine

Profits keep on rolling, though maybe not as robust as quarters past. Will some cash flow back to you and me?

By Steve Hargreaves, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- Back up the truck - the one to collect billions in cash. Oil company earnings are on tap.

To be sure, oil and natural gas prices have fallen from record levels. Profits at some big oil companies may fall from a year ago. And a record-breaking quarter isn't likely. But make no mistake, with energy prices still relatively high and gasoline near $3 a gallon nationwide, oil companies are expected to post profits that are fat.

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When the nation's three biggest oil companies - Exxon Mobil (Charts, Fortune 500), Chevron (Charts, Fortune 500) and ConocoPhillips (Charts, Fortune 500) - report results later this week, the numbers could again be staggering. In 2006, the three companies earned nearly as much as the other seven companies in the top 10 on the Fortune 500.

And with consumers forking over $3 a gallon or more for gas in many parts of the country, the public outcry over the profits could be loud.

"Are we getting any bang for our buck with record gas prices?," asked Tyson Slocum, energy program director at Public Citizen, a national consumer advocacy organization. "They aren't building any new refineries. If they're not going to translate the high prices into investment for the consumer, why should they be allowed to charge high prices?"

In their defense, the oil industry says capacity at existing refineries has been expanding, oil is a cyclical commodity likely to fall in price again, and the industry's profit margin - at about 10 percent - is about average compared to other manufacturers.

Oil prices have fallen from previous quarters and have been trading between $55 and $65 for the last few months.

Although that's still three times higher than the 1990s average of around $20 a barrel, it's below the trading record of $78.40 hit last July, which helped produce near record earnings in the third quarter. The highest quarterly profit ever recorded by a U.S. company - Exxon's $10.7 billion in the fourth quarter 2005, came largely on surging energy prices, particularly for natural gas, in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The public was outraged following those prices spikes - gasoline hit an all time record of $3.06 a gallon in September 2005 - and cries sounded through Congress to stick it to Big Oil.

One of the most ambitious was a proposal by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) for a windfall profits tax, one that would take a big chunk of oil company earnings once their profits reached a certain threshold. In the Republican-controlled Congress, the bill never made it to debate in committee.

With the Democrats in charge, things look a bit different. While a Kucinich spokeswoman said the congressman is likely to introduce a similar bill this session, hopes for netting some of Big Oil's Big Money have turned to tinkering with the tax code.

The House has passed a number of measures aimed at increasing royalty payments on oil and gas drilled from federal land and increasing the taxes paid by oil firms. The Senate is expected to begin debate on similar measures in a couple of weeks.

The two biggest House proposals - requiring companies to renegotiate low-royalty leases in the Gulf of Mexico if they want access to future contracts and repealing a provision that gave oil companies tax breaks by designating them domestic manufacturers - would generate an estimated $14 billion in government revenue over the next 10 years, according to Public Citizen's Slocum.

"Reasonable folks can agree that for a mature and profitable industry, they don't need the kind of subsidies the American public is providing them," said Slocum, who estimated the industry gets up to $10 billion a year in domestic tax breaks of some sort. "There are multiple ways to get at record oil company profits."

But every industry gets some type of tax break, and oil's share is far less than some other industries like ethanol, said John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute.

"They know we don't have a good public relations record," said Felmy. "It's fundamentally singling us out."

Felmy said forcing companies to renegotiate leases puts the United States "in the same category of constitutional law as Bolivia."

As far as a windfall profits tax goes, Felmy reiterated the other arguments that have been made recently.

Oil prices are cyclical and will fall. The government tried it 25 years ago and it led to lower domestic production and higher gasoline imports but few effective programs to rein in prices or curb consumption. That the oil companies aren't any more profitable than other companies, they're just bigger.

Felmy said they need to be big to compete with other, bigger companies like the state oil firms from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Venezuela, United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, Mexico and Russia - all of which he said were bigger than Exxon, based on reserves.

Here's an example of how long it can take to develop an oil project. Exxon has two rigs off the coast of Angola that each cost some $3.5 billion - and production came online 20 years after the company first started exploring in the region, an Exxon spokesman said.

Felmy also said 41 percent of oil company stock is owned by pension funds. Critics "think we're owned by space aliens," he said. "But it's fundamentally unfair" to target retirees who own oil company stocks in their retirement funds. Top of page