Booming crude-oil prices and improved refining profits are poised to put a firecracker under Big Oil’s first-quarter earnings and set the stage for a year that could come close to rivaling the industry’s record year in 2008.
First-quarter crude prices averaged about $100 a barrel, or about 20% higher than a year ago, pushed upward by oil-supply concerns due to political unrest in the Arab World and a recovering global economy. That spike is expected to lift earnings by about 50% at Exxon Mobil Corp., and about 33% each at Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhillips, compared with a year earlier….
“Major oil companies are firing on all cylinders,” says Fadel Gheit, an analyst with Oppenheimer & Co. “Their first-quarter earnings are going to be much, much better than a year ago.”
If oil prices continue to climb, they could at least rival 2008. That year, U.S. producers reported astronomic profits as crude hit $147 a barrel for a time. Exxon that year earned $45.2 billion, more than any other U.S. publicly traded company in history.
And of course, those numbers don’t become any easier to swallow when you consider the $4 billion in subsidies that the American taxpayer coughs up each year on behalf of Big Oil. Efforts in Congress to eliminate those subsidies have failed because Republicans have cast the reform as a tax hike. So even in the midst of a deficit panic, government is required to keep on subsidizing one of the most profitable industries on the planet, a practice defended by the party that proclaims itself the champion of the free market.
Intellectually, the current situation is not that complicated. People are demanding more oil than the market can supply — an economic recovery is boosting consumption at the same time that disruptions in the Arab world threaten oil output. So the price is jumping.
However, that market-driven fact of life is hard for people to accept. With the price of gasoline approaching $4 a gallon — close to the record average of $4.11 in 2008 — consumers don’t want an explanation, they want a solution. And politicians in turn are motivated to give them one, or at least the illusion of one.
Republicans, for example, want to cast government, and more specifically the Obama administration, as the villain. They propose that the federal government drop environmental restrictions and open additional areas to oil exploration and production, suggesting that such steps will lower the price at the pump. But among energy experts, there’s really no debate. Even if we removed all environmental restrictions on domestic oil production — and last summer’s Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the Gulf suggests such a step would come with a heavy price — the amount of additional oil that could be produced in the United States would be too small to move the global market, where the price of oil is set. We may not like to acknowledge that fact — it drives home our relative helplessness — but it remains fact nonetheless.
(And of course, every additional barrel of oil pumped from beneath American territory today makes us even more dependent on foreign oil tomorrow.)
For his part, President Obama is following the futile course set by his predecessor. Last week, he announced a federal investigation into the role of speculation in driving up oil prices, just as President George W. Bush did in 2005 and 2006. Those investigations turned up little or nothing, as will this one. But politically, it gives Obama an alternative villain to whom he can point, which in his situation is important.
The uncomfortable truth is that because the need for oil is so ingrained in our economy and lifestyles, oil prices have to move a lot in order to produce even a slight decrease in demand. They have to rise high enough to make it hurt before people will curtail consumption.
So … are you hurting yet?
– Jay Bookman