- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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. Yesterday, 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 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. It was 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 (IEA) 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.

J.P. Morgan is forecasting average oil prices of $54 a barrel in 2007.

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