Big 5 Oil Companies Going for the Gold

Second-Quarter Earnings Race Ahead, Boosted by Tax Breaks

Daniel J. Weiss and Jackie Weidman examine the profits of these companies and what they do with them to enrich shareholders at the expense of consumers by protecting unneeded tax breaks.

Gas prices are digitally displayed at a Chevron gas station in downtown Los Angeles, Thursday, January 26, 2012. (AP/Damian Dovarganes)
Gas prices are digitally displayed at a Chevron gas station in downtown Los Angeles, Thursday, January 26, 2012. (AP/Damian Dovarganes)

Middle-class families may have gotten some relief in the second quarter of 2012 due to slightly lower gasoline prices compared to the first quarter of the year, but billions of dollars in big profits continue to pile up at the Big Oil companies. In the first half of 2012, the five biggest oil companies—BP plc, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil Corp., and Royal Dutch Shell Group—earned a combined $62.2 billion, or $341 million per day. This compares to an average dip in the average price of gas at the pump for American consumers of a mere 3 cents per gallon between the first and second quarters.

Despite slightly lower oil and gasoline prices over the past three months, these companies still made a combined $236,000 per minute this year. This income is more than what 96 percent of American households earn in an entire year.  

Profits continued to grow for ExxonMobil and Chevron, while dropping slightly for ConocoPhillips and Shell compared to last year. ExxonMobil saw a 67 percent increase in profits while Chevron enjoyed an 11 percent increase. The New York Times reported that these slightly lower profits compared to the second quarter of 2011 were linked to “international benchmark prices for oil [which] had declined by more than 7 percent in the second quarter, compared to the same period last year when turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East caused a spike in oil prices.

BP, the second-largest oil company in Europe, reported a loss of $1.4 billion for the second quarter of 2012. The Associated Press reported that BP said:

The underlying results were depressed by weaker oil and U.S. gas prices together with reductions in output due to extensive planned maintenance, particularly affecting high-margin production from the Gulf of Mexico.

Without BP, profits for the other big four companies are only 4 percent lower compared to the first quarter of 2012. Despite the 7 percent decline in oil prices, second-quarter 2012 gasoline prices were only 2 percent lower than the second quarter of 2011.

The huge earnings this quarter for four of the companies follow the big five companies’ record profit of $137 billion in 2011—amounting to $375 million per day—thanks again to high oil and gasoline prices. ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips were the first-, second-, and 13th-most profitable public U.S. companies in 2011, respectively.

What are these companies doing with this treasure? Some of these funds provide their $72 billion in cash reserves. And these five companies used 31 percent of their 2012 profits to buy back their own stock, which enriches shareholders but doesn’t add to oil supplies or investments in alternative fuels or other new technologies. ExxonMobil spent 42 percent of their profits repurchasing their own stock. Even with these huge earnings and large cash reserves, however, these companies produced 6 percent less oil than one year ago. (see table)


What’s more, the big five oil companies continue to spend millions of dollars on lobbying and political donations. They have spent a combined $25.7 million lobbying Congress so far this year, and more than $91 million over the last 18 months. ExxonMobil alone spent $17 million lobbying for the past 18 months, making it the top spender in the oil and gas industry. Collectively, the oil and gas industry, including the big five companies and Koch Industries, has spent nearly $70 million on lobbying this year.

Their efforts are paying off. An analysis by the House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats determined that the House of Representatives passed many provisions that benefit Big Oil:

The oil and gas industry has been the largest beneficiary of the anti-environment votes in the House. Since the beginning of 2011, the House has voted 109 times for policies that enrich the oil and gas industry, including 45 votes to weaken environmental, public health, and safety requirements applicable to oil companies; [and] 38 votes to block or slow deployment of clean energy alternatives.

This suggests that the millions of dollars Big Oil companies spent on lobbying are worthwhile investments. In 2011 the House of Representatives voted against three separate amendments that would have revoked a collection of oil company tax giveaways. In March the Senate voted 51-47 to end a debate and pass the Repeal Big Oil Subsidies Act, S. 2204, sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). Unfortunately, 60 “aye” votes were necessary to break this filibuster, so the bill was blocked. 

Big Oil’s successful lobbying cost $69 million to protect tax breaks worth at least $4 billion annually. They received $58 in tax breaks for every dollar spent on congressional pressure and lobbying. That is a rate of return that would make Warren Buffett envious.

In addition to high-pressure arm twisting, the oil and gas industry political action committees, individuals, and other donations provided more than $30.5 million in federal campaign contributions this election cycle as of July 9. Republican candidates received 88 percent of these funds. House of Representatives incumbents have already received more Big Oil campaign cash this year than incumbents in 2008 and 2010, and there are still more than four months until Election Day.

While these companies are spending freely on their own wealth and for political influence, they are paying relatively low tax rates. The big three U.S. publicly owned oil companies—Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and ExxonMobil—paid relatively low federal effective tax rates in 2011. Reuters reports that their tax payments were “a far cry from the 35 percent top corporate tax rate.” It reported that ConocoPhillips paid an effective federal tax rate of 18 percent last year. In addition, ExxonMobil paid 13 percent of its U.S. income in taxes after deductions and benefits in 2011, according to a Reuters calculation of securities filings. Chevron paid about 19 percent.

In addition to these relatively low federal income tax rates, these companies also benefit from tax breaks worth $24 billion over a decade, according to the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation. These special preferences include one designed to keep manufacturing facilities in the United States, and another that was enacted way back in 1916, when it made economic sense to help the fledgling oil industry to grow, but little sense today for the big five companies that routinely earn multibillion-dollar profits.

These tax breaks serve no economic or fiscal function any longer, yet in testimony before the Senate Finance Committee in June, Harold Hamm, chairman and CEO of Continental Resources Inc., said that the United States must retain tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. His position ignores that the big five oil companies had lower oil production and fewer U.S. employees over the last half decade despite growing profits.

The House of Representatives-passed budget, authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), would retain these tax breaks. Rep. Ryan claims that his budget would eliminate tax breaks in exchange for lower rates, but his plan didn’t specify a single tax break that it would eliminate. The Ryan budget lowers the top corporate income tax rate by nearly one third. A Center for American Progress Action Fund analysis estimates that the Ryan budget’s cut in the corporate tax rate could lower the big five oil companies’ annual tax bill by $2.3 billion per year, based on an assessment of their 2011 financial statements filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. 

U.S. taxpayers should no longer foot the bill for antiquated tax breaks for Big Oil. The Energy Information Administration predicts that 2012 gasoline prices will average $3.49 per gallon, just 4 cents less than the record-setting $3.53 per gallon in 2011. If this prediction holds, 2012 will have the second-highest gasoline price in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1949. The next closest average annual price was $3.07 per gallon in 2008.

Since there are few fuel alternatives to gasoline for passenger vehicles, Americans are forced to spend more at the pump and less on other goods and services. High gasoline prices lead to a huge transfer of income from middle-class families to huge, wealthy oil companies and their mostly wealthy shareholders. Then there are the $2.4 billion in annual special tax breaks received by the big five oil companies, and essentially paid for by other taxpayers. This makes little sense when these companies’ 2012 profits leave them flush with cash. And the proposed cut in the corporate tax rate by the Ryan budget plan would add an estimated $2.3 billion to this annual inequity.  

After falling since April 6, U.S. gasoline prices rose by a dime per gallon in the past two weeks, according to CNN. As oil prices rise, so will the big five oil company profits. Yet they will continue to collect billions of dollars in existing tax breaks, while the House-passed budget would provide an additional $2.3 billion tax cut.

None of this makes sense when these five companies have made $66 billion in profits in the first half of 2012, while the federal budget faces steep automatic cuts due to the sequestration procedures included in the Budget Control Act of 2011. If Congress doesn’t address this soon, this law will likely lead to automatic cuts in discretionary spending, including funds for U.S. Marshals, food safety inspections, enforcement of pollution reductions, and multiple other vital government safeguards and services beginning in 2013.

Big Oil needs to lose its tax breaks as part of any compromise. Their second-quarter profits reinforce that need anew.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress. Jackie Weidman is a Special Assistant for the Energy Opportunity Team at CAP.

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Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow

Jackie Weidman

Special Assistant