Monday, May 02, 2011

The Oil Earnings Backlash

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 1Q11 earnings release shows their net global production of crude oil and natural gas liquids at 2.4 million barrels per day (MBD). Meanwhile the company's refineries processed nearly 5.2 MBD in support of global refined product sales of nearly 6.3 MBD. In other words, Exxon had to buy more crude oil from other suppliers than it produced itself in order to feed its refineries, and then still had to acquire more than a million barrels per day of additional refined products from other refiners to meet its marketing demand. Meanwhile, 81% of its nearly $10.7 billion of first quarter earnings was attributable to oil and gas production, and 85% of that was from production outside the US. By comparison, just 6% of that $10.7 billion came from the domestic refining and marketing activities affected by US gasoline prices.

That's a fairly typical pattern for the majors, which have generally been short of crude oil for their refining systems since the big wave of nationalizations and expropriations in the 1970s. My old company, Texaco, refined about twice as much oil as it produced and sold roughly half-again more products than it refined. That meant that my trading colleagues and I were in the market every day, buying crude oil and refined products from our competitors, in order to keep our refineries and marketing outlets supplied. When supplies were tight, the only way to secure what we needed was to bid more than the next company, and that reinforced the dynamic of rising prices until supplies expanded or demand slackened. I see that as of the first quarter, Texaco's successor Chevron Corp. (of which I am a shareholder) produced about as much oil globally as it refined, though not in the US, where it processed 80% more crude than it produced domestically. Global product sales exceeded refinery throughput by more than a million barrels per day. Royal Dutch Shell's results exhibit an even more pronounced case of net purchases of both crude oil and refined products.

So while higher oil prices are good for some parts of these companies' businesses--the exploration and production divisions that contribute the majority of profitability in most years--other business segments find higher prices a mixed blessing, at best. That's particularly true for the parts of these companies with which US consumers have the most contact.

As for the questions I posed to Mr. Cohen, I was somewhat surprised to hear that ExxonMobil isn't looking for the US government to provide it with any assistance in gaining access to resources around the world. Foreign governments routinely help their national and quasi-national oil companies to negotiate for access. ExxonMobil seems able to compete in this arena without help from the US government but is much more concerned about the latter's restrictions on access here at home, and its efforts to tax non-US income that has already been taxed by host governments overseas. And with regard to ExxonMobil's activities in algae, I was informed that R&D is progressing well in both California and in Baytown, TX, where a large pond has just been completed. Mr. Cohen stressed that it was still early days for algae.

The purpose of drawing my readers' attention to the distinction concerning oil companies' large net oil and product purchases isn't to solicit sympathy for an industry that's obviously having a very profitable run, but to remind you that the oil and gasoline price situation is a lot more complicated than suggested by the sound bites we often hear. The biggest companies make most of their profits producing oil and gas outside the US, while refining and marketing here remains a capital-intensive and relatively low-return sideline that many of them have been quietly exiting for years. Ending the industry's tax breaks outside of the comprehensive tax system reform I believe to be necessary probably wouldn't harm the big oil companies as much as it would accelerate their shift away from operations in the US that contribute less to company profits than they do to US energy security.

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