Week’s Business: Oil industry 2Q profits bubble higher
Five of the world’s largest energy companies are expected to report combined second-quarter profits next week of more than $30 billion, a bounty fueled by worldwide economic growth and political instability that helped keep oil above $70 a barrel.The oil industry is braced for a backlash in Washington, where elected officials are concerned about constituents in many parts of the country paying more than $3 a gallon at the pump. But some analysts say companies could face less criticism than usual given the attention focused on Middle East violence.Whatever the political fallout, the industry has done right by Wall Street’s standards. The five oil behemoths releasing quarterly results next week – BP PLC, ConocoPhillips, Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC – earned an estimated $33.6 billion, or 32 percent more than a year earlier, according to analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial.World oil prices that rose 33 percent, on average, helped drive the earnings growth. On Friday, U.S.-benchmark crude-oil futures were above $74 a barrel as traders nervously eyed an expected Israeli ground invasion of southern Lebanon. The market fears that the fighting could draw Iran, a key oil producer and supporter of Hezbollah, into the conflict.BP PLC will be the first major oil company to report second-quarter results. The London-based company is expected to reveal Tuesday the weakest year-on-year performance among its peers, weighed down by the loss of output from a massive offshore platform damaged by last summer’s hurricanes, and lost production and repair costs associated with a deadly explosion last year at a Texas refinery.Even so, BP could post net income of $6.3 billion, or 11 percent more than a year earlier, analysts say – showing just how effective soaring oil and gasoline prices can be at masking operational difficulties.Energy consumers deserve credit too; the industry benefited from a global fuel appetite that just wouldn’t quit. The International Energy Agency estimates that world oil demand averaged 82.4 million barrels per day in the second quarter, or 1.5 percent above the prior year, generating more than $500 billion for petroleum producers. That’s roughly equivalent to the annual gross domestic product of South Africa.Of course, the cash register rings more than once for integrated oil companies, and refining crude oil into gasoline, diesel and heating oil turned out to be a blockbuster business segment for them this spring.The average profit margin from refining was $19.10 per barrel of crude, or 60 percent higher than a year ago, according to J.P. Morgan. Independent refiners such as Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp., which report their second quarter results in early August, were the greatest beneficiaries of this trend.One slight drag on the integrated oil industry’s performance was a year-on-year decline in average U.S. natural gas prices, which have continued to slump into the third quarter because of record U.S. inventories following a mild winter.Going forward, the oil majors’ profit growth could face stronger headwinds, said John Parry, senior equity analyst at John S. Herold.Looking beyond summer – and the threat of hurricanes – Parry sees oil prices flattening out and then tailing off toward the end of 2006, especially if economic growth continues to slow, as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned twice this week.J.P. Morgan is forecasting average oil prices of $54 a barrel in 2007, and the IEA says the world’s supply cushion will grow considerably next year as more production from Africa, the Caspian Sea and the recovering Gulf of Mexico comes on stream.At the moment, a price collapse appears unlikely with energy traders uneasy about the current supply-demand balance and nervous about geopolitical threats.The recent fighting between Israel and militants in Lebanon, and the knee-jerk response on oil markets, highlights how prices can spiral out of control without a drop of oil taken off the market. Analysts say these events could actually give the industry some temporary political cover.”The villains today are not likely to be seen as the oil companies,” Fimat USA energy analyst Antoine Halff said. “More fingers are being pointed at Iran and Syria than Exxon and Chevron.”In the April-June quarter, the geopolitical uncertainty gripping the oil market centered on the West’s efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the war in Iraq and instability in Nigeria, which reduced the country’s petroleum output by roughly 500,000 barrels per day.But potential and actual supply threats weren’t the only forces driving prices higher, analysts said. Global oil demand kept rising, fueled by economic growth in China, the U.S. and – thanks to the high prices – the Middle East.”It’s market fundamentals,” said John Felmy, chief economist of the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington-based lobbying organization.But Felmy knows some members of Congress who are suspicious of the industry’s market power may not be satisfied with such an explanation. And he acknowledges that major oil companies are spending their windfall cautiously – buying back shares, raising dividends – rather than splurging on drilling and risking the possibility of flooding the market with oil, which could depress prices and profits.”That’s their fiduciary responsibility,” he said.Oil executives may point out that they are investing record amounts on exploration and production, but Oppenheimer & Co. oil analyst Fadel Gheit noted that the bulk of the extra spending is due to the rising cost of labor and equipment.”They are paying more dollar for the same bang,” Gheit said.