The Oil Earnings Backlash
- Tuesday, 03 May 2011
Another oil industry earnings season bolstered by high oil prices has sparked the customary controversies about price gouging and industry subsidies . Last Thursday I participated in ExxonMobil's press call following the release of that company's first quarter earnings. In addition to the responses to my questions about access to non-US energy resources and the progress of the company's algae venture with Synthetic Genomics , I was intrigued by the answer of Ken Cohen , VP of Public and Government Affairs, to a question concerning Exxon's crude oil sales to other refiners. It resonated with my own experience in commodities trading at Texaco in the 1980s and '90s. Not only do major companies like Exxon, Chevron, Shell and BP control only a small fraction of the world's petroleum reserves and production, but they are often large net buyers of crude oil for their refining operations. Understanding the relationship between industry profits, gas prices and the federal tax deductions and credits designed to promote domestic energy production requires a deeper look into the results.
It's discouraging how much confusion still exists in the media concerning oil prices and gasoline prices, as noted in an excellent posting on the topic by Robert Rapier. Members of the public who are convinced that oil companies are manipulating prices to gouge them can always find some poorly reported news story or garbled explanation to justify their belief. Yet while it's certainly true that oil companies benefit from the higher oil prices that result when global demand for petroleum products is strong and supply is constrained and/or subject to unusual risks--both factors are at work today--their interests are not quite as divorced from those of gasoline consumers as they appear, because they are, to a very large extent, also consumers themselves.
A quick look at ExxonMobil's...