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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 October, 2004, 22:44 GMT 23:44 UK
Problems as well as profits for oil firms
Analysis
By James Arnold
BBC News Online business reporter

Are oil companies making easy money? Get the full story with our guide to the health and wealth of the industry

One of the oldest tricks in a financial journalist's book is to split up an apparently obscene profit into bite-sized chunks.

To report that BP is making 1m an hour - as its latest results this week have confirmed - is somehow supposed to be far more alarming than the quarterly figures the City prefers.

This week, the indignation has been in full spate. Shell has made even more money - $4.4bn in the third quarter, compared with BP's $3.9bn - while in the US, market leader ExxonMobil made $5.7bn and even ConocoPhilips $2bn.

In fact, as BBC News Online's pop-up guide to the industry demonstrates, things are not quite so black-and-white.

Mixed blessing

The most obvious complication is that high crude prices do not play straight into the hands of oil companies.

True, exploration firms like US-based Apache profit directly. But the oil majors have downstream activities - refining and marketing - as well as upstream exploration and production. When crude prices rise, profit margins on refining ought to fall.

In fact, those margins are looking pretty healthy at present, mainly thanks to what seems to be an unquenchable thirst for oil products in advanced economies, not to mention booming China.

Overall, though, there is little evidence of profiteering at the pump: petrol prices have barely budged in real terms over the past 30 years, despite a doubling in the cost of crude.

Such pump-price increases as there have been have tended to be tax-related: taxes account for 22% of the ticket in the US, a share that has doubled since 1980. In the UK, the tax share is 73%.

Desperately seeking

Upstream, life has become tougher, too.

The days when the Middle East - a zone of cheap and available supply - produced most of the West's oil are firmly over. Oil explorers are pinning their hopes on up-and-coming oil patches such as the Caspian and offshore West Africa.

This costs big money, and is likely to reverse a long-term decline in the investment needed to find oil, currently about $6-7 per barrel worldwide.

Concerned about dwindling reserves, and under pressure from environmentalists, oil companies are shifting ever-greater resources to diversify their supplies, including renewable energy sources and unusual hydrocarbons such as oil shale.

Profits, or profiteers

Of course, the big oil firms are not exactly on the breadline. The five largest made combined profits of $53bn last year, a record.

But a lot of the increase in profits in recent years has been the result of efficiency gains, rather than exploitation of the market. ExxonMobil, for example, has cut its workforce by almost one-fifth in the past five years, and its return on capital has doubled to 20%.

Oil firms splash their money about pretty generously: BP paid some 6bn in UK corporate tax last year, and returned some 2bn to shareholders by buying back shares.

There's no point feeling too sorry for the oil firms. But there's a crucial difference between profits, and profiteering.


Take a look at BBC News Online's pop-up guide to oil industry finances by clicking on the link under the image above.


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