By Jad Mouawad
Friday, February 1, 2008
NEW YORK: By any measure, Exxon Mobil's performance last year was a blowout.
Thanks to surging oil prices, the company beat its own record for the highest profit ever recorded by a U.S. company, with net income rising 3 percent to $40.6 billion last year. The company's sales - over $404 billion - exceeded the gross domestic product of all but the 24 richest countries in the world.
Exxon also had its most profitable quarter ever. It said Friday that net income rose 14 percent to $11.7 billion, or $2.13 a share, in the fourth quarter. In addition, the company managed to beat analysts' expectations of $1.95 a share, after missing targets in the past two quarters.
Like most oil companies, Exxon has benefited from a near-doubling of oil prices, from a low of around $50 a barrel in early 2007 to almost $100 by the end of the year - the single biggest jump in oil prices in any one year.
With growth at all of its units, from oil production to its refining and chemicals business, Exxon squeezed the most out of these gains.
"Exxon sets the gold standard for the industry," said Fadel Gheit, a longtime oil analyst at Oppenheimer in New York.
Oil companies have all been reporting record profits in recent days. Chevron, the second-largest U.S. oil company, said Friday that its profit rose 9 percent to $18.7 billion last year.
But the higher profits in the industry mask a more contrasted reality.
Faced with the resurging power of national oil companies, like PetroChina, Petróleo Brasileiro of Brazil, or Gazprom of Russia - Western majors are having a hard time increasing their production and renewing reserves.
As oil prices increase, countries like Russia and Venezuela have tightened the screws on foreign investors, limiting access to energy resources or demanding a bigger share of the revenue. At the same time, many of the traditional production regions, like the North Sea or Alaska, are slowly drying up. The industry is also being pressured by rising costs and shortages of workers, rigs and engineering capacity.
Western majors, once dominant in the global energy business, now control only about 6 percent of the world's oil reserves. Last year, PetroChina overtook Exxon as the world's largest publicly traded oil company. Saudi Aramco, which is wholly owned by the Saudi government, pumps four times more oil than Exxon. It owns about 25 percent of the world's proven oil reserves.
Recently, a quarrel over a world-class discovery in Kazakhstan was resolved after an international consortium, which included Exxon, agreed to allow the Kazakh national oil company to double its stake in a multibillion-dollar venture. The agreement finally brought an end to a dispute that jeopardized the future of Kashagan, a large oil field in the Caspian Sea with an estimated 13 billion barrels of recoverable hydrocarbon reserves.
Tim Cejka, the president of Exxon's exploration business, acknowledged that access was getting tougher around the world. But he said that the industry had been through similar periods of more restricted access in the past.
"Access comes in cycles," Cejka said at an energy conference last month. "And I have got to admit, it's tough right now."
Global oil supplies were nearly flat last year, growing a mere 100,000 barrels a day to 85.5 million barrels on average, according to the International Energy Agency. Growth in Russia and the Middle East was offset by declines in the United States and the North Sea.
Oil demand last year grew by a million barrels to 85.8 million barrels.
Meanwhile, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which met Friday in Vienna, decided to leave its production levels unchanged, resisting pressure from developing nations to pump more oil into the global economy.
OPEC is scheduled to meet again next month, and the cartel signaled it would be ready to cut production then to make up for a seasonal slowdown in demand in the second quarter. OPEC's actions mean the cartel is determined to keep prices from falling below $80 a barrel, according to energy experts.
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By Jad Mouawad