Big Oil Awash in Big Profits

Oil Company Profits Underscore Need for Reform

Rising oil company profits, driven by increasing demand and prices at the pump, underscore the need for energy reform, write Daniel J. Weiss and Susan Lyon.

Increased demand for oil and rising gas prices are bringing in big profits for big oil companies. (AP/Elise Amendola)
Increased demand for oil and rising gas prices are bringing in big profits for big oil companies. (AP/Elise Amendola)

The big five oil companies—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell—are poised to report their first quarter profits this week. And it should surprise no one that rising oil and gasoline prices will lead to higher profits compared to 2009. A research note from Citigroup determined that, “The year-on-year increase largely reflects the strength of crude oil prices.” The Telegraph made the same assessment, saying, “energy companies are benefiting from higher oil prices.”

Gasoline prices increased by nearly 3 percent during the first quarter, while gasoline consumption was up 4 percent. American consumers spent $65 million more on gasoline during the last week of the quarter compared to the first week. This is a 6 percent increase in total spending between the first and last week. Rising prices and demand bring little surprise to the expected announcements that oil company profits are on the rise.

Oil company profits

Oil company Estimated net income Financial Times profit predictions Other profit predictions
BP $4.8 billion Up 85 percent (FT) Almost doubled Q1 2009 earnings (Telegraph)
Chevron $3.7 billion Roughly doubled (FT)  
Conoco $2.0 billion More than doubled (FT) Up 62 percent (BloggingStocks)
Exxon $6.8 billion Net income roughly doubled (FT) $6.56 projected, up 44 percent (Reuters)
Shell $4.0 billion Up about 30 percent (FT) Up 35 percent (Reuters)

This increase in consumer costs and oil company profits is relevant to the upcoming debate on bipartisan, comprehensive clean energy and global warming legislation. Opponents of reform will claim that such legislation would increase prices. But the reality is that the status quo policies have already harmed American families. An analysis of household energy spending between 2002 and 2007—the nonrecession years—found that the average household spent $1,130 more on energy in 2007. Nearly 85 percent of this increase was due to the rise in gasoline prices.

The first quarter oil company profits and consumption data suggest that profits will continue to rise absent bipartisan, comprehensive clean energy legislation that reduces oil dependence, creates jobs, and cuts pollution. This data is another reminder that it is imperative for the Senate act to change the status quo.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Susan Lyon is a Special Assistant for Energy Policy at American Progress.

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Daniel J. Weiss

Senior Fellow