Friday, August 01, 2008

Petro Profits

This energy crisis has given rise to a new American ritual: every quarter, after ExxonMobil's earnings are announced, the media breaks them down into dollars per hour, minute and second, and then cues to reaction shots of consumers expressing outrage that any company should benefit so much from their pain at the gas pump. Although I'm not suggesting we should all feel warm and cozy about oil company profits, we might be better served to focus our fulminating on the dog that doesn't bark. If the largest US oil company produces only 3% of the world's oil and still made nearly $12 billion last quarter, what did the national oil companies that own most of the world's oil make, and who paid for that?

Considering the average price of oil in the 2nd quarter, no one should be surprised that Exxon had stellar results, in spite of earning 54% less on refining and marketing and a third less on chemicals than they did last year at the same time. Allocated over the 26 billion gallons of petroleum products they sold around the world in the quarter, these profits equate to an average of 45¢ per gallon, with 87% coming from finding and producing the oil that went into making those products. It's not unreasonable for consumers paying roughly $4 per gallon to grouse about that, though it does say something about our current national mood that the media chooses to highlight that reaction, rather than someone seeing the results enjoyed by Exxon's shareholders and wanting a piece of the action, no matter how small. But whatever the US oil companies, including Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Marathon, and numerous others make, at least most of their profits get recycled into the US economy, in the form of new investments and the savings and spending of the millions of us who collect their dividends, directly or indirectly. The same can't be said for the profits of Saudi Aramco, the National Iranian Oil Co. (NIOC), Kuwait Petroleum Co., PdVSA, Rosneft, and so on.

Consider NIOC, the second-largest producer among national oil companies, at 4.15 million barrels per day, about 60% of which is exported. Iran is a relatively low-cost producer, though probably not as low as Saudi Arabia. If their total costs per barrel averaged more than $15 per barrel, I'd be surprised. So at an average price for Iranian Heavy for 2Q08 of $113.85/bbl., that works out to a quarterly gross profit just on exports in the neighborhood of $22 billion, excluding NIOC's earnings from domestic sales, refining and its substantial production of natural gas. Those might add another $10 billion to the total. Lop off a billion or so for overhead, and NIOC is probably reporting to its sole shareholder second-quarter results north of $30 billion. That'll buy a few centrifuges.

So go ahead and grumble about big US oil companies making record profits, while we pay near-record prices at the pump. But don't forget that we import 12 million barrels per day of oil and petroleum products, for which each and every quarter we must send roughly $135 billion outside the country, at current prices. Mr. Pickens is right to bemoan this enormous and unsustainable transfer of wealth. In that context, a smart national energy policy would not bog down in trying to choose among expanded drilling, conservation, and renewable energy, as though these were mutually exclusive options; it would pursue all of them, vigorously, and without vilifying companies for wanting to produce more energy here in the US.

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